[This personal essay called upon all the journalistic skills I could remember from my high school and college days. I think it turned out OK. It was written for the now defunct journal of the Friends of Sviatoslav Richter, which I believe went out to only a few hundred people. But given the subject matter, I still wanted to put in enough effort to get it right.]

My Richter Siege

In 1995, celebrating the 80th birthday of Sviatoslav Richter, the Friends of Sviatoslav Richter issued a series of ten cassettes of performances by Richter recorded live in Moscow in the 1950s. When I heard these cassettes, I recognized immediately that they represented a unique treasure, even among the huge Richter discography.

These recordings documented in depth a period of Richter’s career that was sparsely covered by live performance recordings. They included the earliest performances by Richter of numerous major works. They also offered the only live concert performances by Richter of a number of major works, including the Tchaikovsky Piano Sonata and First Piano Concerto. And they included several important works completely new to the Richter discography. As a bonus, they were presented in far better sound quality than I would have expected from 1950s live Russian recordings. This was obvious even when listening to cassette copies.

At that time I had not published any recordings since my Parnassus LP label, which was active only from 1969 to 1971. But I felt an irresistible impulse to share these recordings with Richter lovers around the world. I soon got in touch with Falk Schwarz at the Friends of Sviatoslav Richter and began negotiations to publish these recordings on a new Parnassus CD label.

By coincidence, during this time, I attended a party given by a student in one of my music classes, at which I met Gregory Squires. Squires, a professional horn player, runs a recording studio which produces and records many classical performances and also specializes in transferring and upgrading material from early tapes. We got into a long conversation and he told me he had worked with Russian tapes numerous times. (He has also remastered hundreds of tapes for EMI CD reissues.) I told him I would get in touch with him if I was able to continue with my Richter project.

Working with borrowed money, I acquired digital audio tapes (DATs) of these performances, which had been sent directly from the Soviet Union. I decided to publish these recordings in two-CD sets, just because, as a collector, I knew I would save people a lot of shelf space by issuing these sets in “slim-pak” format. I sent the first tapes to Squires’ studio, where they were remastered by an engineer named Wayne Hileman, who is also a professional bassoonist. (I later got to meet Wayne when he played in a chamber concert in Woodstock’s Maverick Concerts series.) I listened to the first CD master and was very pleased with the result.

A couple of days latter, I got a call from Squires, who told me he had been getting very good results with a new noise reduction program from Poland called Sound Forge. “But Greg,” I said, “these recordings don’t sound noisy to me.” “I know,” he said, “but you should try out the results anyway.” He sent me a test CD with one short piece processed with and without Sound Forge.

I asked my wife if she would listen to the results with me, on her modest stereo system. “But I’m no expert,” she said. “That’s why I want you to listen,” I told her. We listened to the one piece, first without Sound Forge, then with it. After only a few seconds she turned to me and said, “Well, even I can hear the difference.” Sound Forge had somehow clarified the recording without removing any the elements of Richter’s characteristic quality which had survived the recording process. I had to pay another $500 per disc for the processing but I thought it was well worthwhile.

Later in the production process we ran into a strange problem. Hileman called me one day to discuss one of the DATs I had given him. It wouldn’t play. He explained that all the tapes had been used and erased numerous times before the Richter material had been recorded on to them, a situation he had often encountered with material coming from Russia, where the tapes were very expensive and difficult to get. One of my tapes was so worn that it wasn’t playing back on his machine. He asked me if I had an alternate source for the recordings and I explained I had only the Friends of SR cassettes, which we decided we would use if necessary. The next day, Hileman called me back with better news. He had sometimes found that problem tapes would play on some machines and not on others. Squires had fourteen DAT players. Hileman tried playing my problem tape on every one of the machines. It finally played back satisfactorily on the last one he tried!

The Parnassus “Richter in the 1950s” series got off to a difficult start. We started with two two-disc sets. I contacted a U.S. CD distributor who promised they would handle worldwide distribution, a tremendous advantage in a business where I would have otherwise had to arrange distribution in every individual country. But when the time came for my first schedule payment from the distributor, the money wasn’t there. We discontinued the relationship immediately, but it took me several years to collect, in small installments, the money due for those three months of sales. I was fortunate to get another distributor in the U.S. very quickly, and Qualiton Imports is still my U.S. distributor. Other countries followed slowly. For a while, it seemed I was not going to be able to continue the series. Eventually income started trickling in, then flowing, and I was able to publish two more two-disc sets along with numerous other CDs. Even the bankruptcy of a U.K. distributor, who disappeared owing me thousands of dollars, was not enough to destroy my business.

In 2001, though, I received a threatening fax from a lawyer in France. This M. Schmidt wrote claiming that he represented the Estate of Sviatoslav Richter. He ordered me to cease publication of all unauthorized Richter recordings, and he demanded an accounting of the CDs sold followed by payment of a 15% royalty on the retail price of the discs. (This is far above the normal rates.) I noticed with some amusement that one of Schmidt’s colleagues in his law firm was one M. Goldgrab. Indeed!

I wrote back politely asking Schmidt to document his claim to represent a legitimate Richter estate. He informed me that he represented Dmitri Dorliak, the nephew of Nina Dorliac, the wife of Sviatoslav Richter, and that Dmitri Dorliak was the legitimate heir of Sviatoslav Richter. Since he provided no documentation, I wrote and told him that I was not convinced of the legitimacy of his claim.

In March of 2003, I received another fax and a phone call from another lawyer, this time in New York, named Lawrence O’Donnell. O’Donnell represented Schmidt who represented Dmitri Dorliak, and again he demanded that I withdraw my CDs and pay royalties. At this point I knew I needed a lawyer. So I went to my regular lawyer and discussed the situation. I also got in touch with a copyright specialist to find out if there was any legitimate claim at all on these recordings, which I had presumed to be in the public domain. I was unhappy to discover that, in 1997 (?), the U.S. had signed an international treaty known as the Uruguay Rounds which retroactively extended copyright to recordings from, among other places, Russia, which had not previously been protected in the U.S. There went that defense!

O’Donnell provided my lawyer with some documents demonstrating that other CD publishers had paid royalties to him on Richter recordings, including Troppe Note/Cambria. That explained why that label’s “Richter in Kiev” series had disappeared almost immediately after it was issued, then re-appeared shortly afterwards. Schmidt also faxed to my lawyer, through O’Donnell, a listing of alleged contracts made with the “Richter Estate” by the BBC, Bavarian State Opera (why?), and two French record companies. But the alleged Richter Estate’s claims had never been tested in court. After speaking with my lawyer, I decided that paying Dorliak would cost about the same as defending the case in court. If I won in court, I would be free to continue publishing; if I paid, I would just be out the money with no hope of recovery. I decided not to pay, and eventually O’Donnell filed suit against me in U.S. Federal Court.

A friend of mine had recommended to me a lawyer in Albany who could handle a case like mine in Federal Court, a distinguished fellow named John Tabner. I went to see him. Tabner looked over the papers I had been served with, and told me something that I would cling to during the most difficult parts of the case. “I am not impressed with the quality of their legal representation,” he said. I understood that as, “I’m a better lawyer than this guy and I can beat him.”

Unfortunately, O’Donnellâ’ suit was brought in the U.S. Federal Court for the Southern District of New York, which meets in New York City. Mr. Tabner said he couldn’t represent me in the Southern District, and I wound up dealing with another lawyer in New York, Joe Barbosa, who was able to represent me in the Southern District court. I suggested that he apply for a change of venue, since the location of the suit was supposed to be based on where I live and work, and my home and office are located in the Northern District. O’Donnell had somehow gotten the information that I work in Poughkeepsie, which is indeed located in the Southern District, but that was wrong. I’ve never worked in Poughkeepsie. I had worked part time for a radio station in Schenectady (Northern District!) which had a relay station in Poughkeepsie, but I never worked at that relay. Nobody did.

In his deposition to the court, O’Donnell even stated that I had refused to withdraw my Richter records from the market pending the outcome of the suit. That was totally untrue. At the advice of my lawyers, and at the insistence of Qualiton, we withdrew the discs from circulation as soon as O’Donnell filed the case against Parnassus.

More than $7,000 later, and after much jockeying between the two lawyers, we had a hearing in the Southern District court. I wasn’t present, but my lawyer told me the judge had said it sounded like an interesting case but unfortunately it did not belong in her court.

So, we were back in the Northern District. I thought this would be an advantage, since it was my “home court” and not O’Donnell’s, meaning he would have to travel three hours each way to any hearings. It also meant that Tabner was back in the case.

O’Donnell forwarded on to us several documents which were intended to prove that Dmitri Dorliak was the legitimate heir to the Richter Estate. The various contracts, as Tabner pointed out, proved nothing except that, if Dorliak’s claim was fraudulent, it was a successful fraud. There were also a few items supposedly emanating from Russian courts acknowledging Dorliak’s claims. But they were pretty flimsy. We had no argument with the claim that Dmitri was the heir to his aunt Nina’s estate. But we saw no convincing evidence that Nina had been the beneficiary of Richter’s estate. Apparently, Richter left no will, and the various stories about the pair having been legally married were just that, stories. I spoke with a Russian pianist now living in the U.S. about this situation, and he told me, “Oh, no, they weren’t married. Everyone knew that.” I took Dmitri’s favored spelling of his family name, Dorliak, as evidence of his lack of knowledge of his own family, which came from France and originally spelled it Dorliac.

The case dragged on for months, with exchanges of documents between the lawyers and my doing my best to inform Tabner of whatever information I had that was relevant to the case. I had the help of several Richter admirers in Europe, who supplied me with some useful information and even more useful moral support. Primary among these was my new friend Antti Sairanen, who is the Attorney in Fact for the real Richter Family, his cousins Walter Moskalew and Fritz Reincke, who live in the United States. Antti, whom I eventually met in New York, is also the researcher for a new biography of Richter, written by Prof. Karl Aage Rasmussen, which will be published in Danish and English. I also spoke at length with Mr. Moskalew, who offered much encouragement and support and some useful information about Dmitri Dorliak.

Early in 2005, Tabner told me that he had filed a demand with the court that Dmitri Dorliak appear in person to answer questions for a deposition, and that it had been met by O’Donnell and Schmidt with stony silence. Not long afterwards, Tabner told me he had talked on the phone with O’Donnell, who admitted that he and Schmidt could not even locate Dmitri Dorliak.

Finally, on July 6, 2005, U.S. District Judge Lawrence E. Kahn granted my lawyer’s petition to dismiss the case, “with prejudice, for Plaintiff’s failure to appear for his deposition on or before May 1, 2005.”

In a way, it was a pyrrhic victory, one which costs the winner almost as much as the loser. While paying the demanded royalties would have cost me more than $25,000, I wound up spending that much in legal fees. I had to take out a home equity loan against the value of my house to pay the legal bills, and still wound up spending so much money that it temporarily crippled my business.

As of the beginning of 2006 I had not been able to publish any CDs for almost two years, and my business in used and rare classical LPs and CDs is still suffering from the strain of the lawsuit. But the terms of the dismissal of the case,”with prejudice,” mean that Dmitri Dorliak can never sue me again for anything having to do with his claims to Richter materials. And, eventually, I will be back to publishing some of the wonderful recordings of my favorite pianist, the man whose concerts provided me with the most intense and lasting musical experiences of my life.

–Leslie Gerber

[Postscript: The mail order business is now closed, but the Parnassus label remains active and continues to release Richter recordings.]

Comments are closed.