Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Sviatoslav Richter

Why is it that so many of the really great pianists are Russian: Vladimir Horowitz, Emil Gilels, Sviatoslav Richter, Grigory Sokolov? I've just been exploring Richter recently as I don't know his work very well. He certainly is in the front rank of pianists. I've been reading an interesting book put together by the French film-maker Bruno Monsaingeon (who did the excellent film of a Sokolov recital in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris). Monsaingeon was in the process of preparing a documentary on Richter when he passed away. Richter was very leery of being filmed so it was a long, difficult process. But along the way, Richter gave Monsaingeon a number of notebooks of comments on concerts and recordings that he listened to. I will pass on some of the comments as I work my way through the book. But I wanted to quote a passage from a short memoir also included in the book:
I've never practiced scales. Never. Nor any other exercises. Never, not at all. Czerny neither. The first piece I played was Chopin's first nocturne, followed by his Study in E minor, op. 25 no. 5. Then I tried sight-reading Beethoven's sonatas, especially the one in D minor.
He also sight-read a lot of operas. Carl Czerny, by the way, was a pianist, student of Beethoven, who produced great quantities of studies and exercises for the development of piano technique. So what are we to make of this avoidance of technical exercises? The usual reason given for this kind of practice is to make all the basic formulas, scales, arpeggios and so on, absolutely automatic by practicing them in a context where there are no musical elements to distract one. The idea is to develop touch and control by simplifying the context. But does everyone need to follow this path? Apparently not, if Richter is a reliable witness. Could he be lying? Yes, possibly. But it is more likely that he was just one of those extremely rare individuals who had enormous physical and mental gifts so that he could focus on anything he played and use it to establish and refine his technique. Before I began serious studies with a maestro, I did much the same thing: almost the first piece I tried to learn was the Chaconne by Bach and I used to spend hour after hour sight-reading through great piles of music. Was I developing my technique? Or was I just developing bad habits? I really am not sure. My sense is that when I did begin studying with José Tomás in Spain that I had no particular bad habits to overcome. So perhaps my obsessive concern with developing a perfect technique was a bit misplaced? I am honestly not sure. This is a pretty good reason to read a book like this. Assuming that Richter is being honest and candid, it can cause you to question a lot of basic assumptions. However, one should not assume that one has talent on the scale of someone like Richter!

Here is another quote, this time regarding Prokofiev. Richter gave the premieres of the Piano Sonatas nos 7 and 9 by Prokofiev (the former of which he learned in four days):
Sergey Prokofiev was an extremely interesting person, but ... dangerous. He was capable of hurling you against a wall. One day a pupil was playing him his Third Concerto, accompanied by his teacher at a second piano, when the composer suddenly got up and grabbed the teacher by the neck, shouting: "Idiot! You don't even know how to play, get out of the room!" To a teacher!
Well, yes, there are a surprising number of established teachers who really are not very good musicians.

Speaking of Gilels, there is an anecdote about him. During his first tour in the United States he was greeted with rave reviews from the critics. His response: "wait until you hear Richter!" Here he is with the Sonata No. 7:


Elaine Fine said...

I always return to Richter. There are other pianists (living and dead) who thrill me, but there's something about Richter that is extra special. Even sacred. Being able to name it would be akin to being able to articulate the concept of what we call "God" with clarity. Thank you for this post.

Will Wilkin said...

Bryan, this article was very fun and encouraging and even amusing. I'm still here reading but always (even tonight) too much on the run to comment much.

Anonymous said...

You can watch the documentary by Monsaingeon on youtube:

Bryan Townsend said...

I think the first pianist that really impressed me was Arthur Rubinstein that I saw play a concert in Spain in 1974. Last year, I was lucky to hear Grigory Sokolov in Bologna. Sadly, I never had the chance to hear Richter in concert.

Will, I suspected you were busy!

Anonymous, thanks for the tip! I hadn't even looked for the documentary yet.

Marc said...

Imagine the bad press if e.g. Steve Reich or Phillip Glass or Nico Muhly-- someone who is habitually praised in the pages of The New Yorker, in other words-- were to physically assault a student! If one had lots of free time, one could try to guess which (if any) artist would 'survive' (and in what sense 'survive') the scandal ensuing from such an incident. I do remember reading-- at the end of last summer, because of the OBF nonsense here-- that the vocal ensemble director whose assistant Matthew Halls used to be in the UK, whose name I cannot recall, who was convicted and jailed for the crime of sexual abuse, assault, I don't recall more details-- of minors, no less-- after his release was awarded the status of 'rehabilitated' by 'the arts community' and returned to his vocal ensemble directing, in which ensemble or ensembles the minors remain unabused and unassaulted, we are confident in believing.

Bryan Townsend said...

And in all the focus on sexual abuse and harassment, we neglect the other ways people in the arts can be abused. Yes, hierarchies are inevitable, but recognition of a hierarchy of quality or authority should not obscure the necessity of basic respect for people. Teachers who intellectually and emotionally abuse their students are, to my mind, just as reprehensible as those who do so sexually.

Bur surely these comments belong in a different thread?