Our music this week is the Sonata in B Minor for solo piano by Franz Lizst. This week is also the beginning of a new series, but, rather than focus on a particular composer, we’re going to focus in on a specific musician, Sviatoslav Richter. This obscure sonata is delightful piece to listen to, but this first email will be devoted to giving you all a bit of background on Richter.
Born in what is now Ukraine, Richter is in the conversation for “greatest pianist of all time.” His astounding musical genius was apparent the age of twelve, when, even though he had never taken a piano lesson, he became the conductor and pianist for a local opera company. Although his lack of formal training initially held him back (he was not admitted to the Moscow Conservatory at the age of thirteen because he was not technically proficient enough), a few years of studying with Heinrich Neuhaus brought him onto the world competition stage. Neuhaus was heard to have said that he had waited all his life for the chance to each a musical genius like that of Richter’s. A stroke of good luck came his way when Richter met Sergei Prokofiev and was given the opportunity to premier Prokofiev’s sixth piano sonata. This performance rocketed him into international fame, and word spread far and wide of his prowess at the keyboard. He soon afterwards won the prestigious Stalin Prize, which led to concert tours across Europe.
Richter was restricted from traveling to America for many years because he refused to align himself with the U.S.S.R.’s ideology. As a result, Americans only knew of Richter through recordings of his concerts. He became known as “The Enigma” because of the air of mystery that surrounded his name, as well as his astonishing technical abilities and the powerful range of emotional qualities that he could create on the keyboard. When he was finally allowed to travel to the United States, Carnegie Hall immediately booked his first five concerts and, within three hours, was sold out. He was an immediate sensation.
In many ways, Sviatoslav Richter truly was an enigma. He was reclusive, he hated crowds, he was socially awkward, and he preferred to practice in almost complete darkness. He despised recordings, and it is widely agreed that the only good recordings of Richter are the ones that were made when he was not aware of it (i.e., recordings made during live performances, such as this one). He was almost completely silent at all times, but when talking with close friends he was rumored to be hysterically funny. He had freakishly large hands, capable of stretching over a twelfth on the keyboard (for reference, an average human is lucky to span an octave, or eight notes), that he never knew what to do with and was always trying to hide in his coat pockets. He drank heavily but never seemed to suffer any ill effects. His best friend for most of his life was a soprano named Nina Dorliak, but they never married and had a strained friendship at times. Throughout all of this, he remained a strong and quiet voice of political resistance against the U.S.S.R. When he died in 1997, he was found at the keyboard, with the music open to the sonata that he was practicing for his next recital and his hands still on the keys.
More to come from the great Richter next week!