Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Sviatoslav Richter – a Dissent

Was Sviatoslav Richter the “pianist of the century”, as the cover of a recent Deutsche Grammophon boxed set claims? The 20th century included such titans of the keyboard as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Josef Hoffman, and Vladimir Horowitz – not to mention other noteworthy pianists as Arthur Rubinstein, Claudio Arrau, and Vladimir Ashkenazy. Specialists like Glenn Gould occupied a universe all their own and defied comparison to others.

I bought myself a copy of “pianist of the century” and listened to every disc. It represents the smallest pie-slice of Richter’s prolific discography. My familiarity with Richter’s recorded output goes back to my adolescence when I first started listening to Classical music: the 1960 RCA recordings (many of which I have both on CD and the original LPs), the 1958 Sofia recital, some of the Melodia recordings that were issued on Columbia, several Schubert Sonatas on various labels, and the Liszt Concertos with Kondrashin on Phillips – which are my favorite Liszt Concertos and favorite Richter recording. But I must put my cards on the table and bluntly state that I didn’t much care for DG’s boxed set, and it wasn’t just because of the presumptuous title. Many of the performances are poorly recorded, in the concertos the accompaniments are sub-standard (certainly not Richter’s fault), and Richter’s piano often has a “thumping” quality that is antithetical to tonal beauty. There are also the irritatingly fawning liner notes by Jeremy Siepmann. In just about every way, encountering this set was more of a chore than a pleasure.

While I wouldn’t call Richter the pianist of the century, I would say that he was uniquely representative of piano playing in the second half of the 20th Century – in the sense that he encapsulated many of the changes that were taking place at that time, as old traditions were swept aside and new practices solidified. Indeed, when Richter first emerged in the West, much of his playing was rooted in the old-school Russian tradition – passed on by such teachers as Heinrich Neuhaus. Harold Schonberg wrote as much in one of his early Richter reviews, calling some aspects of the pianist’s playing provincial – and Schonberg was far from the only critic to note that. But over time, Richter’s playing became less specifically Russian – and more generally European.

But while some may consider the "pianist of the (half) century" remark a compliment, for me, Richter represents precisely what went wrong with piano performance after about 1950: The rejection of a tonal aesthetic, the equation of glacial tempos with profundity (this was generally an issue for Richter only after 1970), the pretense of humility (including fetishizing of the score), contradicted by barely disguised contempt for the audience. (What Siepmann's notes derided as “playing to the gallery” I think of as having respect for the audience, who after all, buy the tickets and pay the bills. Great artists have proven that it’s possible to please the audience without sinking to the lowest common denominator.)

I will confess here that I never saw Richter perform in person – by the time I was old enough to go to concerts, Richter had sworn off the United States. But I am not convinced by the frequently cited excuse that Richter made certain approaches “work” in live performance that did not carry over in recordings. That’s simplistic rationalizing. I’ve heard enough pianists both live and on record (including Horowitz, Arrau, and Brendel, among many others) to know that what works, works – regardless of where the listener sits.

Richter didn’t help his own cause by being difficult to work with – even by the taxing demands of Classical performers. He would frequently rehearse in the hall until just before the concert was scheduled to begin, disallowing the piano tuner from properly preparing the instrument. (That’s why the piano magically retunes itself in many of Richter’s patched “live” recordings.)  And he would badmouth colleagues whenever the opportunity arose.  His tendency to despise others arose from his own self-loathing in matters ranging from his homosexuality to his own insecurity as a performer.  As he said in a documentary, "I don't like myself."

And then there were Richter’s “winter” years. Nearly every performing musician, unless he dies young, has to cope with the reduction in abilities that accompanies age. The last two decades of Richter’s career were sad indeed, with a decline in mental power so precipitous that he had to depend on the score when performing (a humiliation covered by the pretense of reverence for the score). It would be unfair to judge Richter solely on his final years – although it goes without saying that the average music lover is not acquainted with Arthur Rubinstein’s or Claudio Arrau’s pre-stereo recordings, and thus has an incomplete appreciation for their playing. It’s a rare performer who knows when to stop. Toscanini continued to give concerts at least three years longer than he should have – although his studio recordings from that time continue to impress. Horowitz went through a medicated period when he was playing poorly, stubbornly soldiered on over the protests of his inner circle – before taking a two year sabbatical to de-toxify and emerge as a very different pianist. Violinist Jascha Heifetz was an exception who quit the stage and recording some 14 years before his death – he probably could have gone on for years earning high fees and coasting on his reputation.  The Richter who toured the United States in 1960 bears little resemblance to the elderly pianist who was fawned over by pretentions "disciples" - many of whom couldn't read a note of music.

As with many unique performers, Richter was highly influential. Pianists who play more “normally” tend to be less so – one never hears a young competition winner touted as the next Ashkenazy, or Perahia. Like Horowitz and Gould, there were numerous younger pianists who tried to make a career of imitating Richter’s mannerisms. How many kids have tried to pretentiously adopt Richter’s ridiculously slow tempos in Schubert’s D. 960 Sonata? (Anyone who has ever played pianos from Schubert’s era, with their lack of sustaining power, will know that Richter’s tempos on Schubert’s pianos would have rendered the works incoherent.)

But Richter’s influence has begun to fade. Over the last two decades or so, pianists have come to realize that the Richter/Pollini paradigm has boxed them into a corner. This is exactly why Volodos enjoyed something of a vogue in the United States a decade ago (he remains popular in Europe). It’s also why transcriptions and original compositions by the performers (notably Marc-André Hamelin) are becoming all the rage again.

Listening to Richter's Deutsche Grammophon recordings, I keep coming back to what Neville Cardus wrote: The last thing we learn in the arts is that a pure aesthetic pleasure is the rare and right one – especially in music. It is easier in music to lean on philosophy than it is to make music.

Richter never learned that. Nor, I fear, did many of his acolytes.


Anonymous said...

If you think Richter is anything like Pollini, you don't understand Richter.

Hank Drake said...

First: show some guts and publish under your name.

Secondly: Don't understand Richter? Maybe I don't understand Pollini.

Third: I never stated Richter is "like" Pollini. But they do represent two aspects of the same paradigm: "Just play what's written, don't inject your own personality, don't bring a sense of joy or spontenaeity to the music, and don't you DARE stoop to 'entertaining' the audience."

Ivan said...

Very interesting posting, indeed. I don't agree that Richter equals Pollini, but your approach is so interesting, because you have surpassed the fan's point of view. As a musician (and an admirer of Richter), thanks so much. Among others, I have always been perplexed by Richter's slow tempos in the first movement of Schubert's D 960. There's a video of Gould almost 'drooling' over this, and how Richter kind-of hypnotized him by playing this slow, which I suppose accounts for Gould's own slow playing of the Goldberg's aria in 1981. It is true that Schubert wrote the confusing indication "Molto moderato," but I definitely don't think that he meant ... Richter's slow. Now you have given me a technical reason of why Schubert couldn't have conceived it like that, and how misleading Richter could be by teasing the audience like this. Ah, the genius...
Thanks again.