Alfred Harrievich Schnittke (1934-1998)

Schnittke on Richter

Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on June 15, 2007

For people of my generation Svyatoslav Richter looms as a lofty peak where live music merges with its history. No matter how often you tell yourself that he is our contemporary, that you can see and hear him – you fail to realize it, because for decades he has been occupying a place of honour along such men as Chopin, Paganini, Liszt, Rachmaninov and Chaliapin, constituting a living link between the present time and eternity.

For nearly half a century this man – outwardly self-contained and seemingly inaccessible – has been the centre of Moscow’s musical life as performer, sponsor of festivals, the first to notice and assist talented young musicians and artists, the connoisseur of literature, the theatre and the cinema, the collector of paintings, the familiar figure at art exhibitions and himself a painter and a stage director. When he conceives the idea of holding a cycle of concerts on a particular subject, an art festival or an informal recital, his fiery temperament surmounts all and every obstacle in his way.

His self-criticism is proverbial: after a wonderful appearance arousing the enthusiastic acclaim of public and press, and inspiring scholarly investigations, he would torture himself for a minute slip which he alone has noticed. There is nothing strange in this attitude, nor does it mean a desire to show off – Richter approaches musical performance with a standard all his own, for he alone knows the original concept and he alone can therefore estimate the degree to which it has been realized. We do not know what perfection haunts his inner ear and can consequently form no conception of what might be the ideal performance as he sees it. We can but feel grateful for the part of his idea that he has succeeded in carrying over, since it exceeds by far anything that we are able to imagine.

I have been listening to Richter and worshipping him for over thirty-five years. I remember his recitals of the early 1950s featuring the sonatas of Beethoven, Prokofiev, Liszt and Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, the études of Rachmaninov and Scriabin, Chopin’s waltzes and mazurkas, the concertos of Beethoven, Rachmaninov, Schumann, Liszt, Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov, Saint-Saëns and Ravel, and many, many other works. I was lucky at the time not to miss a single appearance of Richter, I knew about them beforehand and was at the box-office on the first day that the tickets were sold. I was fifteen, sixteen years old at the time and tried (unavailingly) to make up for lost time in becoming a pianist.

I loved him in music, even more than I loved the music he played. I was astonished at his temperament and willpower. I marvelled at his conquest of technical difficulties (he played so as if it was quite simple), I adored his tone, especially in piano, but I did not appreciate his easy posture at the instrument, I thought he was trying to impress the public. I cut out his picture from a newspaper and carried it in my pocket along with Shostakovich’s picture as a kind of talisman. I was indifferent to all other pianists and regarded any attempt at comparing them with Richter as sacrilege. I listened with mixed feelings of envy and disdain to people who knew Richter personally speaking about him: how dared they call him Slava, how dared they pronounce his and somebody else’s name in the same breath?

Then Richter’s popularity grew so that I could not get a ticket for love or money and only some eight years ago it became possible for me to attend his concerts once again. I was astonished at the change in him: the easy posture (“trying to impress his public” indeed!) had gone, there was a sage, an ascetic at the piano, one who knew something of which music was merely a part. The feeling of his inaccessibility increased, although he proved to be an exceedingly modest and considerate person when you knew him (I’ve committed the act of sacrilege and have been introduced to Him!).

His repertoire, too, was changed: his programmes came to be dedicated to a single theme, the Romanticists had been relegated to the background and ensembles by Shostakovich, Hindemith, Berg, Janacek, Dvorák and Franck figured prominently. The temperament was as vigorous as before and yet somewhat different, not subjectively romantic and objectively elemental. The objectivity, however, was not retrospectively classicistic, but perfectly new in kind. The same perfection but purged of conventional devices (artless), the same grandeur without a shade of a pose – the grandeur and might of one who has renounced ambition and power. The music he played might be defined as ungrateful to the pianist, for example, the unpretentious piano pieces by Tchaikovsky, the Utopian in its immateriality Sonata for Viola and Piano by Shostakovich – everything breathing the rarefied atmosphere reigning in Beethoven’s latest quartets.

On the eve of his 70th birthday Svyatoslav Richter presented us with a new festival – Masterpieces of Twentieth-Century Music – once more overwhelming us with the power of his talent in Shostakovich’s Trio where he appeared with Oleg Kagan and Natalia Gutman. He revealed also a new aspect of his artistic personality, that of operatic director, in producing on a diminutive platform (you cannot call it a stage) Benjamin Britten’s exceedingly difficult The Turn of the Screw, achieving tremendous effect with the simplest and perfectly original means: suffice it to mention the spatial distance between the voices and the “bodies” of the spectres, which made the listeners’ flesh creep. I was on the point of expressing a desire to see more of Richter’s stage works, but checked the impulse in time, fearing that it might interfere with his appearances as pianist.

Svyatoslav Richter is a universal genius and in speaking of him as pianist his other activities should not be disregarded. Perhaps he is the pianist of such stature precisely because he is more than just a pianist, because his problems lie on a higher level than the music alone where art, philosophy and science come into contact, at a point at which a single truth that has not yet found realization in words or images is expressed in a universal notion. An ordinary mind seeks the solution of a problem on a plane peculiar to it, struggling blindly along on the surface until by mere chance, through the trial-and-error method, the solution is attained. The mind of a genius seeks the solution of a problem in translating it to a universal level from which everything is seen and the correct road is easy to find. That is why those who devote all their time to a single pursuit achieve less than those who are interested in contiguous matters, for the aesthetic insight of the latter acquires an extra dimension enabling them to see more, in greater volume and with greater truth.

All attempts to find a key to the mysterious nature of genius, however, are in vain – we never shall be able to arrive at the formula of talent and never shall repeat the Great Master who lives among us. Let his days be long!

Originally published in Music in USSR, July 1985.

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