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Letters sent on Sviatoslav Richter mailing list between July and September 1998.


I have just joined the SR list and have been reading the mail with
great interest. I am one a several surviving relatives of Richter's on
his mother's side.  My father Mikhail (see "Richter Family Portrait" on
Paul Geffen's SR page) was the brother of Richter's mother Anna. Other
cousins of his live in Boston and New York.  I was born in 1937 in
Zhitomir (Ukraine), came to Germany 1943, and emigrated to the U.S. in
1952.  I am not sure that I can resolve much that is enigmatic about
Richter, but perhaps I can provide a few glimpses of how we perceived
him in our family.  Aside from some visits in Zhitomir before the War,
my contacts with him were limited to the time when he came to the U.S.
in 1960, 1965, and 1970, as well as a brief stay with him at his
festival at Tours in 1976.  There was some correspondence, mostly brief
notes and post cards. 

As far as I know the only person to receive really long letters from
him was his (and my) aunt Tamara (Dagmar since 1943).  She was his
favorite aunt, but even she had to cajole and threaten him sometimes to
reply to her letters.  She used to number them and insisted that he tell
her which numbers he had received.  She did that in part, of course,
because she was afraid that some letters were not getting through to
him.  But there was also a close bond between them, for when Richter was
little (we called him Svetik, which means "Little Light--no one in the
family called him Slava) she had actually taken care of him to help out
her sister.  Dagmar was a painter and illustrator in Russia, very
imaginative and charismatic, even theatrical.  One children's book she
illustrated (a variation on Alice in Wonderland) is dedicated to Svetik
and features a red-headed little boy who wanders off into the forest
(and falls asleep), where he encounters all kinds of fantastic
creatures.  It was called "Hanspeters Waldtraum" ("Hanspeter's forest
dream") and published in Leipzig by Fischer & Wittig, no date (I suspect
it was in the 1920's).  She also wrote (in Russian) several short
stories about Svetik as a child, which I hope to translate some day.
One of these describes his obsession with the theater and how he staged
an elaborate production from his bedroom window for the benefit of the
neighbors.  Thus his lifelong love of theater and opera started very
early.  And there was a love of charades, which my aunt encouraged, and
in which the rest of the family and friends willingly participated.  I
was too little to remember accurately, but I am told (and have seen
photographs) that at least one summer they got together and conducted a
kind of Walpurgisnacht in a forest near Zhitomir.  Svetik (by that time
in his twenties) was Mefistopheles, my aunt a witch, my father (who
played the flute) was Pan, and so on.  They caroused late into the night
and apparently scared some unwary peasants half to death.  There was an
unconventional streak that my aunt had which Svetik appreciated, or
perhaps she was also responding to his tendency to chafe at convention.
She said that Svetik would always do something unexpected when he would
come for a visit.  For instance, instead of entering through the door he
would surprise you by climbing in through the window.  She adored
Svetik, and much of what I know about the early years comes from her,
because her stories were always the most compelling, and yet I wonder to
what extent she had amplified, embellished, yes mythified Svetik for
me.  My own memories are vague yet stangely vivid (I was only 3 or 4
then).  I remember the excitement of his arrival at the house (did he
really come through the window?). I see him standing there, his head
framed against the window.  It was sunny outside and he was smiling that
smile I was not to see again for decades.  And then it is morning and we
are in the forest. Is it the morning after that notorious
Walpurgisnacht?  Svetik had just been playing on a small portable organ
that somehow they had brought to the woods.  I am standing by it,
itching to touch the keys and made music, but when I try I fail
miserably, and I burst into tears.  He puts his hand around me and
smiles kindly, and the rest fades into the mists.


Perhaps I can add a little to what Dejan has to relate about Richter’s
practice habits. I do not doubt that Richter may have experimented with
various ways of preparing for a concert, some of which may have seemed
unorthodox.  He never played exercises of any sort.  I knew this from my
aunt Dagmar even before he came to the U.S., he himself confirmed it to
me, and he does so also in Bruno Monsaignon’s film.  It seems very much
in character.  Since he never played compositions he did not like, why
would he have played exercises?  And of course we all wonder how it was
possible for him to acquire such a phenomenal technique without ever
playing exercises.  He himself was not usually happy with his playing.
When I was visiting him in New York during his 1970 tour he confided to
me that he had only recently learned to practice properly, and thought
that he would be playing much better if only he could discipline himself
to practice three hours each day.  I wish I had pursued the subject with
him in more detail that day, for he did not tell me what “proper
practicing” was or what he had done in the past that was so wrong.
Perhaps he meant that in the past his approach was less disciplined.  My
aunt used to tell me (she had visited him in Moscow shortly before the
War) that he might practice endless hours one day and then go several
days hardly touching the piano.  When I saw him, he tended to practice
by the hour, rather than setting himself a particular goal and working
at it until he felt he had accomplished it.  Perhaps he did that too,
but I did not observe it.

I have heard him practicing in Boston (1960, 1970), in New York (1970),
and in Philadelphia (1970).  Never did I hear a single scale or exercise
of any sort.  He would work on whatever he was going to perform, playing
things through close to the tempo called for.  Now there may be a
difference here between practicing to maintain repertoire and refreshing
a piece he had not played in while or even learning a new piece.  He
told me that he liked giving concerts every couple of days because he
had to work less hard to “keep in shape” than when he had a long layoff.
In 1960 I was with him at the Ritz Carton Hotel in Boston as he was
practicing the Tchaikovsky 1st and the two Liszt concerti, all in the
course of some two hours.  I believe he played them all from beginning
to end, stopping only occasionally to repeat certain passages.  He
obviously knew them quite well (he was to play the Liszt with Kondrashin
the following year), and when I asked him what he was striving for in
his practice session, he said that he wanted to make sure that his
memory of the score was accurate.  He seemed to have few technical
problems to work out.  Similarly, in New York in 1970 I heard him
practicing Prokofiev 7th Sonata, Beethoven Var. Op. 34, 35 & 76,
Schubert’s Huttenbrenner Variations, and Bartok 15 Hungarian Peasant
Songs--all in the same afternoon.

Perhaps his comment to me in 1970 summarizes his approach.  He said
that during practice one should play expressively and carefully observe
all the dynamics, but that one should also hold back a little and save
one’s full range expression and power for the performance.  His practice
fortissimos were certainly not what you heard from him in concert. This
notion of “saving oneself” for the concert may derive from a desire to
allow room for spontaneity.  He hated to pick out pianos for his
concerts and preferred to be surprised (something he reiterates in
Monsaingeon’s film), and I suspect that perhaps the idea of fine-tuning
his performance during practice was alien to him the for that same
reason.  Something had to be left to chance, to the inspiration of the
moment.  He said that the mood he was in at a concert played an
important role in its success.  Most of all he feared apathy.  Some of
his best concerts, he said, were when he was angry or elated.

Moods also affected his practicing.  Once, when he was in New York in
1970, Nina and I prepared to go out, but he stayed behind, reluctantly,
saying that he had to practice, even though he did not really want to.
He seemed depressed.  I surreptitiously had left the tape recorder on.
He practiced for about an hour the Beethoven Variations Op. 76, and it
was clear that he was very frustrated with how things were going.  Lots
of missed notes, it almost sounded as if he had not quite learned the
piece or had forgotten it (yet a few days later he played it brilliantly
at Carnegie Hall).  He would stop and repeat certain passages over and
over again, sometimes slowly, but generally most of it was played close
to performance tempo, perhaps just a shade slower.  When we returned
Nina asked how the practicing had gone, and he made a face and said that
his fingers had felt like noodles ("kak makaroni", in Russian).
In the spring of 1970, when he was recuperating from the flu that had
caused him to cancel a number of concerts, he stayed with his (and my)
aunt Dagmar (aka. Tamara) in Somerville, MA.  They had arranged to put a
Steinway upright there (no room for a grand), and he religiously
practiced the Beethoven Diabelli Variations three or four hours a day.
I was there during one session as he practiced Variations 24-33.  I sat
by and watched, and occasionally he would comment or ask questions.  He
said that he had found the best way to play pianissimo was to play “from
the shoulder.” I understand this to mean that there should be no wrist
or elbow movement.  He also believed that because our hands are
interdependent, one hand can help the other out in difficult passages.
One several occasions when he made a mistake in some right hand passage
work he would say: “See, I didn’t help out with the left!”
He tended to work on one or two variations at a time, repeating again
and again at near performance tempo.  He would observe all the repeats
(but then he is well known for that). Sometimes he would experiment.
When practicing Variations 26 & 27 he asked me if I thought that perhaps
Variation 27 (marked Vivace) should be faster (he was practicing it as
the same tempo as the previous one), and he proceeded to play Presto.
It was stunning, and I thought it was a nice contrast to the previous
variation.  I told him that I liked it faster.  He thought for a moment
and then said he liked it better slower.  He did not elaborate, but I
think it is often characteristic of him to strive for understatement
(even though he is known to go for extreme tempi --fast or slow, as well
as for great dynamic contrasts).  A little later, feeling a bit cocky
and privileged to have had my opinion solicited, I ventured to ask why
he played Variatioon 29 in such a restrained way.  Why, for instance, in
bars 5 and 6, he did not make more of the crescendo and diminuendo
marked in the score.  His answer was that that would be too much, the
implication being that he wanted to hint at the pathos rather than milk
every last drop from it.  I remember how he expressed great
dissatisfaction with the way Leonid Kogan had played the Prokofiev
Second Violin Concerto (coupled on the Monitor LP with Richter’s Bach D
minor Concerto).  He felt it was much too romantic, cloyingly sweet.
“You should listen to how Oistrakh plays it.” he said.

As for the Diabelli Variations, he said to me that he thought the last
variation was the most difficult variation to play, perhaps the most
difficult piece in all of Beethoven.  And that in the last variation the
most difficult part was the ending, so that if you can’t play the ending
well, you can’t play the last variation, which means you really cannot
perform the Diabelli Variations.  He never did play them in America.  He
was apparently dissatisfied with how he was playing them, even though
that afternoon he had practiced the redoubtable 33rd variation many
times.  What I heard was certainly marvelous, and he seemed to be fairly
happy with what he had accomplished that day.

At another time in 1970, when I was with him in his hotel (I forgot the
name, but it was on Central Park South, in the center of the block, with
a great view of Central Park), he practiced the Prokofiev Seventh.  He
tended to play through fairly long sections of the Sonata at a fairly
brisk pace, though more slowly than later in performance.  Only a few
passages, such as the one marked ‘tumultuoso’ (first movement, shortly
after the return to the Allegro), he would practic more slowly three or
four times, but otherwise everything was in tempo and with relatively
little concentration on specific details.  A few comments he made,
reinforced my impression that his interpretations are often controlled
by visual images which the music evokes in him.  In talking about the
Prokofiev Seventh (and other war time sonatas of his) he said that you
could hear machine guns firing and explosions.  As he was practicing the
first movement, in the Allegro section some 20 bars before the return to
the Andantino theme (where it begins in f), he commented: “What he
conveys so well is a sense of dread!  There is always something rather
disquieting.” And I said, thinking of the passage marked ‘senza Ped.’
that the percussive nature of those chords struck me as machine-like.
He answered, “No, no, not really.  It is more as if people are riding on
horse-back along a road...there are telephone poles passing by...they
are going away somewhere, and it is a kind of gray overcast day.” It
made me recall a similar comment he had made ten years earlier, this
time about the Mozart d minor concerto. It was when I was with him in
Boston as he practiced the Tchaikovsky and Liszt concerti. During a
break we talked a little, mostly about music.  I asked him (I marvel now
at my chutzpah) why he played the middle section of the Romanze so
slowly.  Having been introduced to this concerto through a recording by
Clara Haskil, who plays the middle section quite tempestuously, as do
most other pianists I have heard, I found Richter’s slow pace
inappropriate, if not perverse (I didn’t say that, of course).  To me it
conjured up a storm (I was thinking of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and
Vivaldi’s Summer).  He shrugged and said, “But you see, what I imagine
here is a running brook...a waterfall...” At another time, talking about
Beethoven’s Appassionata he remarked how the last movement becomes
progressively more wild and then with the Presto it turns into some kind
of dance of witches and devils.  I believe that his playing was always
deeply affected by the visual images the music suggested to him, and
perhaps it was this capacity for visualizing sound that may have enabled
him control and balance the larger musical structures so well.


Unless there is a record of Richter himself having stated what time of
day he was born, I am not sure there is a way of finding out.  My aunt
Anna (Richter's mother) has left a handwritten memoir of some 80 pages
(in German), which I have.  On checking what she says about her son's
gestation and birth I found the following (my translation):

"Already during the first days of the War several friends perished and
soon there were many whose passing we mourned.  So as I approached the
end of my pregnancy it was a time filled with much joy and much sorrow.
I constantly listened to music and ardently longed for a son who might
grow up to be a great musician.  Indeed, I was convinced of that.
Everyone laughed at me and prophesied a tonedeaf daughter.  The birth
was very difficult, for I was in labor for 18 hours.  But on the 20th of
March there came into this world the little boy we had wanted so much.
We thought long about a suitable name for him.  Finally, with the help
of an old lady friend of ours we settled on Sviatoslav —— Svietik
["Little Light", WM].  As Theo [his father, WM] first caught a glimpse
of him, he exclaimed: 'Good Lord!  So young, but look what beautiful
little fingers he has.  Don't you dare send him back.'  When we returned
home he begged me to lay him in his arms.  Theo looked at him for a long
time and then said, 'I like him.'  Since then walking about with his son
in his arms became a daily routine to which he greatly looked forward."

Evidently the time of day when Svietik was born did not leave much of
an impression or she did not consider it worth mentioning.  The only
other two relatives alive (one in Boston and the other in New York) were
born after Richter.  I will ask them when I talk with them next, but I
doubt that they would know the exact time of birth.

Reading my aunt's words makes me realize how much more distant fathers
used to be in 1915. As the father of four-year-old twins I did not have
to ask to hold them— I just did it.

I don't know exactly when my aunt wrote these pages, but it must have
been fairly late in life (she died 1963 aged 71).  Her mind was clear
and sharp to the end. However, her recollection of the past, the
fantasies she had that the child to be born would be a great musician,
the comments about Richter's beautiful baby fingers, all this strikes me
as possibly being an instance of myth-making, of depicting the hero's
birth and childhood as unusual because his life had been so remarkable
[I teach mythology, so I can't help seeing parallels here]. But then by
all accounts Richter was rather remarkable as a child. So I vacillate
between wanting to accept my aunt's recollection as accurate and feeling
that perhaps her account of her pregnancy is written from the
perspective of a mother who had not been able to see or even communicate
with her famous son for almost twenty years. What she writes strikes me
as particularly poignant if, as I suspect, she may have written it
before she met her son again in the United States in the fall of 1960.
Imagine the years she spent, as she lived in southern Germany, listening
to Radio Moscow on the short-wave radio in the hope, so often
frustrated, of catching some shred of news, some scrap of a performance,
anything at all ... to be assured that he was alive, and well, even
famous.  Imagine tuning in and actually hearing him play (she could
identify his playing after a few bars, and she was rarely wrong)——it was
a joy so close to sorrow that no words could fathom either. Here he was
playing for all the world to hear not knowing that among the countless
faceless listeners there was his mother, whom he thought dead, and who
had no prospect of ever breaking through the curtain of silence to tell
him that she lived. She was a strong-willed woman who kept her feelings
on a short leash. I remember her sitting close by the radio straining to
hear over all the interference, her lips upturned into a faint smile
while her tears vainly struggled to burst forth.  It is enough to break
your heart.