The title of Bruno Monsaingeon's well-known film that was dedicated to Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997) perfectly characterizes this extraordinary artist. Sviatoslav Richter occupies a special place in the list of great pianists, for his music, of course, but also for his intellect and compassion. Twelve years after his passing, he is considered as one of the most important pianists of our time. His repertory is colossal: he admitted at the end of the 1960s that it included eighty "possible" recitals! If we had to choose the musician who rejected conventions the most adamantly, it would be Richter!
A devoted activist, he worked assiduously to bring forgotten composers out of oblivion. He also possessed an essential virtue for musicians: a high standard of excellence, an absolute standard that left no room for laxness in the choice of works or in his style. Whether Russian or Western, the public was always fascinated by this sensitive, authentic pianist's humility and personal commitment as well as for his unwavering standard of excellence in music. It is, thus, not surprising that Richter became a legend as early as the 1960s.
Richter was born into a family of German descent at Zhitomir, Ukraine in 1915. His father, an administrator of the Protestant church in their native town, was an organist and composer. Richter’s music career was, to say the least, atypical: largely self-taught, his career began quite late, and Richter steadfastly rejected all restrictions that record companies and concert managers tried to impose on him.
As a youngster, Richter was passionate about literature, theater and opera. At the age of sixteen, he became an accompanist at the Odessa Opera. In 1935, at an age when most students are finishing their studies, Richter entered the class of the renowned Heinrich Neuhaus at the Moscow Conservatory, with whom he studied for seven years. The pianist became friends with Sergei Prokofiev, who asked him to perform the world premieres of his three great "war" sonatas.
In 1945, Richter won first prize at the Soviet Union’s piano competition, but it was nearly fifteen years before he was allowed to perform in the West. In addition to his solo performances, Richter always set aside time to play chamber music (sonatas, trios, quintets) and accompany vocalists as they sang lieder. No other pianist was as active as he was, and he performed with the greatest musicians of his time, including Benjamin Britten in four-hand piano pieces, with David Oistrakh and Mstislav Rostropovich, Dietrich Fischer Dieskau and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, not to mention another opera singer, Nina Dorliak, his wife.
Each of his interpretations is a “re-creation” of the work, as he never ceased to strive for absolute perfection. A tireless worker, forever dissatisfied, Richter hid his passion behind a mask of reserve, obstinately refusing to accept the nickname “sacred giant”. Like Chopin and Rachmaninov, he considered musical interpretation to be a question of integrity.
At the end of the 1960s, Richter greatly reduced the frequency of performances with orchestras in favor of recitals and chamber music. He created two well-known festivals: the “December Evenings” in Moscow and the Grange de Meslay Festival, near Tours, France. Every concert given by Richter was a special event, even if it was not in a capital city. In 1986, he performed in 150 remote Soviet cities and towns. Richter abandoned his career in 1990 due to serious health problems, before succumbing to a heart attack seven years later.
A singular, unclassifiable musician, Richter never taught music. Yet, he left a lasting mark on the art of piano playing in the 20th century, bringing out the ultimate essence of scores through his absolute mastery of planes of tone, his risk-taking (sometimes outrageous!), his infallible sense of the work’s architecture, and his absolute refusal to compromise. This exceptional artist followed an unconventional musical career, and perhaps, because of his originality, he has been a source of inspiration for generations of musicians!