Vandaag is het al 25 jaar geleden dat de Oekraïnse pianovirtuoos Svjatoslav Richter is overleden. Hij was ook de eerste klassieke muzikant van wie ik een elpee kocht (hij staat rechts op bovenstaande foto).

His father was a German expatriate pianist, while his mother, Anna Pavlovna, was from a landowning Russian family, and at one point had been a pupil of her future husband. In 1918, when Richter’s parents were in Odessa, the Civil War separated them from their son, and Richter moved in with his aunt Tamara. He lived with her from 1918 to 1921, and it was then that his interest in art first manifested itself, although he first became interested in painting, which his aunt taught him.
In 1921 the family was reunited and Sviatoslav became interested in music (as well as other art forms such as cinema, literature and theatre) and started studying piano. Unusually, he was largely self-taught. His father only gave him a basic education in music. Even at an early age, Richter was an excellent sight-reader and regularly practised with local opera and ballet companies. He developed a lifelong passion for opera. At age 15, he started to work at the Odessa Opera, where he accompanied the rehearsals.
On March 19, 1934, Richter gave his first recital, at the Engineers’ Club of Odessa; but he did not formally start studying piano until three years later with Heinrich Neuhaus. Although Neuhaus taught many great pianists, including Emil Gilels and Radu Lupu, it is said that he considered Richter to be “the genius pupil, for whom he had been waiting all his life,” while acknowledging that he taught Richter “almost nothing.”
Early in his career, Richter also tried his hand at composing. He gave up composition shortly after moving to Moscow. Years later, Richter explained this decision as follows: “Perhaps the best way I can put it is that I see no point in adding to all the bad music in the world“.
By the beginning of World War II, Richter’s parents’ marriage had failed and his mother had fallen in love with another man. Because Richter’s father was a German, he was under suspicion by the authorities and a plan was made for the family to flee the country. Due to her romantic involvement, his mother did not want to leave and so they remained in Odessa. In August 1941 his father was arrested, and on 6 October 1941 was shot by the Soviets as a spy. Richter didn’t speak to his mother again until shortly before her death nearly 20 years later.
In 1945, Richter met and accompanied in recital the soprano Nina Dorliak. Richter and Dorliak thereafter remained companions until his death, although they never married. She accompanied Richter both in his complex life and career. She supported him in his last sickness, and died herself a few months later, on May 17, 1998.
It was rumored that Richter was homosexual and that having a female companion provided a social front for his sexual orientation, because in the Soviet world homosexual behavior was illegal. Richter had a tendency to be private and withdrawn and was not open to interviews. He never publicly discussed his personal life until in the last year of his life filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon convinced him to be interviewed for a documentary.
In 1949 Richter won the Stalin Prize, which led to extensive concert tours in Russia, Eastern Europe and China. In 1952, Richter was invited to play Franz Liszt in a film based on the life of Mikhail Glinka. On February 18, 1952, Richter made his debut as a conductor when he led the world premiere of Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in E minor with Mstislav Rostropovich as the soloist. This was his sole appearance as a conductor. Prokofiev also wrote his 1949 Cello Sonata in C for Rostropovich, and he and Richter premiered it in 1950. Richter himself was a passable cellist, and Rostropovich was a good pianist; at one concert in Moscow at which he accompanied Rostropovich on the piano, they exchanged instruments for part of the program.
In 1960, even though he had a reputation for being “indifferent” to politics, Richter defied the authorities when he performed at Boris Pasternak’s funeral, but on the other hand he had played Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No. 1 at Joseph Stalin’s funeral in 1953, with David Oistrakh. Pas in 1960 wordt hij ook in het westen bekend. Hij draagt er o.m. bij tot een “herontdekking” van Haydn, zij het op de klassiek-romantische manier natuurlijk. Ook zijn visie op Schubert was “revolutionair”. Zo speelt hij het langzame gedeelte van de sonate in G (D.894) in 27 minuten, daar waar anderen er tien minuten minder over doen! Richter usually refused to play piano transcriptions in concert, although on occasion he would perform opera transcriptions for his friends. Thus, after being a witness at Riccardo Muti’s wedding, Richter played from memory the entire first act of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly for a small group of wedding guests.
Zijn Russische opnamen werden hier in het westen in allerlei piratenversie bekend, alleen de Philips-opnamen zijn door de meester zelf goedgekeurd. Zelf vroeg ik voor mijn zestiende verjaardag (in 1967 dus) mijn eerste klassieke plaat en dat werd dus (vrij voorspelbaar) het eerste pianoconcerto van Tsjaikovski, gedirigeerd door Herbert von Karajan en met aan de piano… jawel. Dit was op Deutsche Grammophon, maar ik kan me niet inbeelden dat ook deze opname geen goedkeuring kreeg van de meester zelf.
Ondertussen liep er iets mis met de optredens van Richter in het Westen. Following a 1970 incident at Alice Tully Hall in New York City, when Richter’s performance alongside David Oistrakh was disrupted by anti-Soviet protests, Richter vowed never to return. In 1986, Richter embarked on a six-month tour of Siberia with his beloved Yamaha piano, giving possibly as many as 150 recitals, at times performing in small towns that did not even have a concert hall and for an audience, who had never before heard classical music. Toch placht hij te zeggen: “…I don’t play for the audience, I play for myself, and if I derive any satisfaction from it, then the audience, too, is content.”
Marlene Dietrich, who was Richter’s friend, wrote in her autobiography: “One evening the audience sat around him on the stage. While he was playing a piece, a woman directly behind him collapsed and died on the spot. She was carried out of the hall. I was deeply impressed by this incident and thought to myself: ‘What an enviable fate, to die while Richter is playing! What a strong feeling for the music this woman must have had when she breathed out her life!’ But Richter did not share this opinion, he was shaken
Richter himself died at Central Clinical Hospital in Moscow from a heart attack, after he suffered from a depressed state of mind caused by his inability to perform in public. Richter disliked the recording process and most of Richter’s recordings originate from live performances. However, despite his professed hatred for the studio, Richter took the recording process quite seriously. For instance, after a long recording session for Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, for which he had used a Bösendorfer piano, Richter listened to the tapes and, dissatisfied with his performance, told the recording engineer “Well, I think we’ll remake it on the Steinway after all.”

Ronny De Schepper

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