Happy birthday Sviatoslav Richter! 

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Sviatoslav Teofilovich Richter (March 20th, 1915 – August 1st, 1997) was one of the most celebrated and accomplished pianists of the twentieth century.

During the course of the twentieth century, as recording technology became both more prevalent and more advanced, musicians became ever more aware of the danger of making a mistake during a performance, knowing that there would be a permanent record of any error.

The result was an increased emphasis on cleanliness and precision that led to new levels of technical virtuosity, but also, too often, to technically flawless, but lifeless and unmusical performances.

Richter was a technical monster, but what set his playing apart, even from other great virtuosos, was his passion and musicality.

Richter plays Scriabin's Vers la Flamme:

 

Richter's father, Teofil Richter was a German pianists, organist and composer who had studied music in Vienna. While continuing to live most of the year in Vienna, Teofil spent summers in the Ukraine, where he taught music.

Teofil fell in love with one of his music students, a beautiful Russian girl named Anna Moskaleva. Anna's wealthy landlord father did not approve of the relationship but the two married anyway.

Sviatoslav Richter was born in Jitomir, Ukraine, on March 20th, 1915.

"I was born in the Ukraine, which didn't exist then; it was called 'Little Russia.'"

During the Russian Revolution, Sviatoslav became separated from his parents and lived for four years with his aunt.

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The family was reunited in 1921, and moved to Odessa, where Teofil became a faculty member at the Odessa Conservatory.

Sviatoslav took an early interest in music, especially opera. His father taught him how to play the piano and how to read music and his mother encouraged him to explore music in his own way.

"I never played scales. No exercises either. Never. I began with Chopin's first Nocturne."

He was an avid reader, devouring opera scores and piano reductions and becoming an excellent sight-reader at an early age.

He was playing and sight-reading Wagner scores at eight.

His father was friends with eight spinster sisters who all lived together in a nearby house. Richter used to visit and give concerts for the sisters.

By the time he was a teenager, he was able to earn a modest living as an accompanist for singers, opera companies, and ballets.

At fourteen he became the resident accompanist at the Odessa Sailor's Club, where amateur singers would stage scenes from operas with piano accompaniment.

"The singers were downright awful."

At fifteen he travelled extensively throughout the Ukraine to accompany, in his words: "singers, violinists, circuses..." Once he was paid with a sack of potatoes.

"This was right after collectivization. It was hard, but never mind..."

In 1934 he played a piano reduction of Wagner's Götterdämmerung at the German consulate after Chancellor Hindenburg died

He gave his first recital in 1935 at the Odessa Engineer's Club--an all Chopin program.

In 1937, at the age of twenty-two, Richter was threatened with military service and so sought to enroll at the Moscow Conservatory.

He auditioned personally for Heinrich Neuhaus, who told another student: "This man is a genius."

Neuhaus taught Richter to open up his sound and to respect silences.

Richter was expelled twice during his first year at the Moscow Conservatory because of his disinterest in anything other than playing the piano, but somehow Neuhaus was able to secure his return.

In 1940 Richter made his Moscow debut, performing Prokofiev's sixth piano sonata.

In 1941, the Hitler-Stalin pact collapsed as Germany invaded the Soviet Union.

Stalin was shocked by and unprepared for the double-cross and did not appear in public for two weeks.

Ahead of the advancing German army, the Soviet authorities began evacuations and security sweeps.

Richter's father, suspected of being a spy because he was German, was arrested and executed.

Richter's mother fled with the Germans army and moved to Germany, along with a former high official of the Czar, who had been faking an illness since the revolution-pretending to be bed-ridden.

The two married and the man—though actually Russian--latter changed his last name to "Richter" leading to false reports that Richter's mother had married her brother-in-law.

Richter did not see his mother again until 1961.

Prokofiev was on the faculty of the Moscow Conservatory and was impressed by Richter's playing. In 1942 he gave Richter his piano sonata number seven to premiere.

Prokofiev dedicated his ninth piano sonata to Richter and once stated that he had never really heard his own music until he heard Richter play it.

Richter toured the Soviet Union during the war, playing in Murmansk, and even in Leningrad as German bombs were falling on the city. He was kicked out of Leningrad after one concert because of his German last name.

In 1945 he won his first competition, with a jury headed by Dmitri Shostakovich, who later said: "Richter is an extraordinary phenomenon."

In that same year Richter met the soprano Nina Dorliak, when he accompanied her for a program of Rimsky-Korsakov and Prokofiev songs. Although the two never married, they lived together for the rest of their lives (she died just a few months after he did).

In 1949 Richter was awarded the Stalin prize and in 1953, he played at Stalin's funeral—performing for the nomenklatura beside Stalin's open casket.

"The whole thing was revolting."

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In 1955 Emil Gilels gave a series of critically-acclaimed performance in the U.S.

Gilels response to the praise was: "Wait until you hear Richter!"

At this time the Soviets did not want Richter to travel to the West, because they were afraid that he would defect. Richter, for his part, hated to fly.

However, in 1960, at the age of forty-five, Richter finally made his Western debut, playing in London, and then, beginning October 19th, 1960, playing a series of five concerts at Carnegie Hall.

However, earlier that year Richter had performed at dissident Boris Pasternak's funeral, and so a tour planned for 1962 was cancelled by the Soviets authorities.

In 1964 Richter founded an annual music festival at the Grange de Meslay in Tours, France.

David Oistrakh and Sviatoslav Richter Bartok violin sonata 1, movement 3, Moscow, 1972:


Richter returned to New York in 1970, playing Carnegie Hall with violinist David Oistrakh, but a performance was interrupted by a protest against the Soviet Unions' treatment of Jews. Richter found this incident intensely distressing and never returned to the U.S.

Richter seems to have interpreted the protest as a personal criticism of Oistrakh—who was Jewish—for not speaking out against the authorities.

It's not clear that the protesters had this intent, but clearly both Richter and Oistrakh were put in an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous situation by the protest.

The Soviet Union was in a permanent state of psychological warfare with its most prominent citizens: its great artists, composers, mathematicians and scientists: it did not want to simply execute these people or exile them all to Siberia; it wanted to exhibit them, as living proof of the superiority of the Soviet system and the "new socialist man."

It wanted them to perform and it wanted them to behave.

The mathematician V.I. Arnold gave a description of how the Soviet authorities attempted to control his mentor Kolmogorov.

Arnold reports the following scenario: a student makes a derogatory comment about the Communist Party during a class taught by Kolmogorov.

If Kolmogorov fails to report this statement to the authorities, the student—who turns out in truth to be a member of the secret police—charges Kolmogorov with sedition for not reporting his statement.

Both Richter and Oistrakh had performed at Stalin's funeral in 1953; both knew they were being watched carefully.

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Richter was followed by a KGB agent even when he was performing inside Russia. He would occasionally play games with his "tail." Once he recognized the man on a bus and asked him:

"So, are you getting off at the next stop?"

The KGB agent answered "yes," and Richter replied:

"I am not."

Although he never returned to the United States, Richter continued to perform in France, Germany and Russia until 1995.

He died of a heart attack in Moscow on August 1st 1997 at the age of eighty-two.

Rostropovich and Richter, Brahms cello sonata opus 38:

 

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