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#476482 - 06/18/01 09:17 AM New Book on Sviatoslav Richter
AndrewG Offline
2000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/26/01
Posts: 2506
Loc: Denver, Colorado
This new book might interest some of us here on the forum. Here is a good review of it featured on New York Times:


SVIATOSLAV RICHTER
Notebooks and Conversations.
By Bruno Monsaingeon.
Translated by Stewart Spencer.
Illustrated. 432 pp. Princeton, N.J.:
Princeton University Press. $29.95.

Allegro con Plastic Lobster

Sviatoslav Richter was a great pianist, a Soviet virtuoso and a deeply troubled man.

By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN

At the end of Bruno Monsaingeon's 1998 film ''Richter: The Enigma'' is an image of the once virile Russian pianist, his face hollowed and neck shrunken by age. His shoulders are sloped with resignation, and his head, instead of tilted back in ecstatic concentration, slumps with weariness. His fingers, once capable of lifting him and his audiences into rarefied realms, cover his face, offering no comfort. ''I do not like myself,'' he sighs. ''That's it.''

But is it? This confession, instead of solving enigmas, only seems to amplify them. Here is one of the great pianists of the 20th century, who was justly welcomed with adulation any time he appeared, who never once, in dozens of recordings, seemed to doubt what he was doing or what the music was saying. His Schumann and Brahms are not dreamy melancholics eccentrically brooding over autumnal thoughts, but bold provocateurs. His Beethoven is a venturesome architect who is also a builder, risking life and limb to lift up expansive structures. Chopin, far from being a sentimentalist, creates intricate webs of emotional sensation, his lines contrapuntally spun into space.

Music, though, is a sonic dream-image of life, at once a model of an ideal and a portrait of the real. So how do such authoritative performances, so spontaneous, yet so free of self-indulgence, arise out of such despair? Richter was once central to the Soviet Union's image of itself as an incubator of excellence. But in these final accountings something is awry. ''I find things confusing,'' he confesses on film; he is bewildered, he says, not by music, but by life.

Examining this confusion might have been an unusual path to the heart of Richter's art. And in the introduction to ''Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations,'' it seems as if it is going to be taken. Bruno Monsaingeon, the creator of documentaries about musicians like Glenn Gould and David Oistrakh, recounts how he gradually seduced Richter out of mute solitude. He drew the reclusive pianist into an unspoken agreement that neither would openly acknowledge: a film would be made; the camera would be hidden; the engineer would be unseen. Out of hours of conversation, cut short by Richter's death of a heart attack in 1997, came the 154-minute film and the text of this book, which is edited from Richter's (often tedious) musical journals and the film's transcript, and presented as a continuous autobiographical narrative.

The problem is that Monsaingeon is torn between wanting to idealize and hoping to reveal. He wants to show that Richter had transcended all earthly concerns. ''He had nothing to fear from anything. Nobody had a hold over him.'' He lived with ''a wild and intractable purity'' and was ''concerned, above all, with order and truth.'' The film proclaims that Richter was indifferent to ''politics, praise and worldly goods''; he was ''a free man.''

The evidence for the autonomy comes from Richter himself. He was born in 1915 in Ukraine and came to maturity in Odessa, beginning as a largely self-taught prodigy. He lived through the horrors of the Soviet regime by treating it as an annoyance that he could safely ignore (''I was never interested in politics''). So he played Prokofiev when the composer was out of favor, but he also played at Stalin's funeral, where he was more disturbed by aesthetic crudities than anything else. He later constructed another form of musical autonomy, refusing to book concerts far in advance, spontaneously giving concerts in small towns. He disliked recordings and cherished ''the unexpected, the unforeseen'' of the concert hall.

But Richter's claim of indifference to worldly matters seems questionable. Even Monsaingeon felt that some of Richter's criticisms of living people were ''so violent,'' and his attitude so ''acidic in its virulence'' that they had to be omitted. The suggestion that Richter was a ''free man'' is also belied by the ''more or less permanent state of torpor'' of his later years. And Richter was enslaved by obsessions. He was tormented by a ''terrifying, nonselective memory'': he could recall the name of every person he ever met and lost sleep when one escaped him. He was driven nearly mad by a droning melody in his head, which he finally traced back to his childhood love of Rachmaninoff's ''Vocalise.'' During one period of chronic depression, he recalled, ''it was impossible for me to live without a plastic lobster that I took with me everywhere.'' Doesn't that plastic lobster cry out for some explanation?

Crustaceans aside, it is easy enough to play psychologist. During the Russian Civil War, when Richter was a child, his parents left him in the care of his aunt for four years. When their lives were in danger during World War II -- Richter's father was of German descent -- his mother hampered their escape because she loved another man who lived with them. As a result, Richter's father was killed by the Communists. Mother and son did not speak for 19 years. There are allusions as well to troubling sensations. What did Richter mean when he guiltily asserted that he was responsible for Stalin's condemnation of Shostakovich? And what effect did Richter's public suppression of his homo***uality have (an issue completely ignored by both book and film)? More things are here than are dreamed of in Monsaingeon's idealization.

These are questions, though, that could be asked even if Richter had been a bricklayer. What happens when rebellion, guilt, fury and fear are knit into the fabric of music? ''I don't play for the audience, I play for myself,'' Richter proclaimed, declaring, again, his independence. But he was not a gentle judge. He gives himself a rare word of praise for a recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 or one of the Brahms Piano Quartet in A major, but much else is ''dreadful'' or ''execrable.''

There is something at stake other than mere acclaim. Richter's performances often took place in darkened concert halls with a single light illuminating the keyboard. He attempted, he said, to ''empty my head of all nonessential thoughts.'' And later: ''You have to believe, more than St. Peter, that you'll walk on water. If you don't believe it, you'll go under, and straightaway.'' Technically -- shown in exquisite detail in Monsaingeon's film -- his fingers really did seem to be touching the surface of a liquid keyboard. They moved weightlessly, yet with such surety and precision that waves resonated in the water's depths. At times Richter crashed through the surface with a compressed energy, but there was no superfluous movement. All obstacles became fluid, sometimes literally: after one successful performance he exuberantly threw himself into the sea.

That effortless technique, though, was in service to an edgy grandeur. During the last 200 years there have been different types of virtuosos. In the mid-19th century, they were demonic, with Liszt or Paganini making Faustian pacts for frightening powers. By the early 20th century they were, like Sergei Rachmaninoff or Josef Hofmann, masters of reshaping the past with their interpretations. In the United States, there arose ''democratic'' virtuosos, like Itzhak Perlman or Yo-Yo Ma -- equals among equals, who speak with conversational ease.

Richter was something else, as were such colleagues as David Oistrakh and Emil Gilels. The Soviet virtuoso, sponsored by the state, was meant to display the glory of public life, the nature of its achievements and the promise of an ever greater future; nothing could be sentimental or private. But for such performers, there was a gap between the ideal and the real. With each performance much was sacrificed. How could such virtuosos not create large-scale dramas in which authority and power confronted fear and fury and dream? Richter's style was not purely idiosyncratic; it echoed the world of the Soviet virtuoso. Is it possible, then, that one reason for his final melancholia was that this world and his role in it had begun to dissolve?

Now, at any rate, this book seems a requiem. The Soviet virtuoso is no more. And elsewhere, so much less is at stake that the virtuoso, however masterful, seems ever weaker and paler. It is tempting, at times, to join Richter, in bleak resignation.

Edward Rothstein is cultural critic at large for The New York Times and author of ''Emblems of Mind: The Inner Life of Music and Mathematics.''

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#476483 - 06/18/01 09:49 AM Re: New Book on Sviatoslav Richter
Mat D. Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/29/01
Posts: 512
Loc: Sterling Heights, Michigan
Thanks Andrew,

I love Richter and will read this book soon.

Mat D.

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#476484 - 06/18/01 10:39 AM Re: New Book on Sviatoslav Richter
Diarmuid Offline
Full Member

Registered: 05/27/01
Posts: 219
Thanks from me too Andrew. I remember seeing Richter playing at the RCM in London before he died. Just as it says in the article he had all the lights out and just a small lamp on the keyboard.

It was some of the best playing I've ever heard.

[ June 18, 2001: Message edited by: Diarmuid ]

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#476485 - 06/18/01 11:48 AM Re: New Book on Sviatoslav Richter
Eldon Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/25/01
Posts: 597
Loc: Illinois
Andrew,
I found this book at Borders late this winter. The book mentions the film Glinka, with Richter playing Liszt. (p.155) Do you know more about this?

Sincerely,
Eldon
_________________________
Sincerely,
Eldon

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#476486 - 06/18/01 12:35 PM Re: New Book on Sviatoslav Richter
AndrewG Offline
2000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/26/01
Posts: 2506
Loc: Denver, Colorado
No Eldon,

I read about this Glinka info thru the Internet years back. I have followed Richter's career as carefully as I could manage. To me he was THE pianist of all times. I grew up with his recordings. His artistry was heavily represented and also documented by Prague Springs starting from the early '50s. Many of his performances and even his practice sessions were filmed. Notice that I use 'fildmed' because in those days there're no video cameras. I am still waiting for these treasures to surface some day here in the West.

Andrew

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#476487 - 06/18/01 12:40 PM Re: New Book on Sviatoslav Richter
AndrewG Offline
2000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/26/01
Posts: 2506
Loc: Denver, Colorado
Eldon,

I forgot to mention the few Richter WEB sites. Just wonder if you have ever visited the sites created by Paul Geffen or Ates Tanin. These are two of the several very knowledgeable Richterians that I know of and respect on the Internet. You might want to pursue the 'Glinka' starting with these sites. The well known 'Richter Fan Club' might be another source. Good Luck!

Rgds,
Andrew

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#476488 - 06/18/01 06:35 PM Re: New Book on Sviatoslav Richter
Mat D. Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/29/01
Posts: 512
Loc: Sterling Heights, Michigan
I bought it today & will read it while on vacation next week.

Mat D.

Richter is also my favorite (if I had to choose). His interpretations are so uninhibited (compared to many of the young "play it safe" virtuoso pianists today) and "human", if you know what I mean---earthy!

Mat D.

[ June 18, 2001: Message edited by: Mat D. ]

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