[This essay was written to accompany an EMI boxed set reissuing all of Sviatoslav Richter’s recordings for that label.]

At first he was a shadowy, mysterious presence, dimly reflected in poor-sounding recordings from Russia. One early LP even misidentified him as “Stanislav” Richter. But as the recorded evidence accumulated, including a startling Schumann record from Prague and a titanic version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition from a Sofia concert, it became obvious to Western pianophiles that Sviatoslav Richter was one of the great pianists of his era.

This perception became even more compelling when Richter began to tour outside the Soviet bloc, beginning with a series of concerts in the United States in 1960. To those who attended them in person, including many critics, they were a revelation. Fortunately for us, major recording companies became interested in Richter, and he made numerous recordings for several of them.

By the time of his death in 1997, Richter had produced an enormous discography, both authorized and unauthorized. He probably had the largest repertoire of any pianist, beginning with Bach and Handel and including such diverse 20th century composers as Prokofiev (who wrote several major works for him), Shostakovich. Gershwin, Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Hindemith (a special favorite), Ravel, and Copland. He much preferred live performances to studio recordings, and many of his best recordings were made in concert. But the stimulation he felt from the presence of listeners seemed to occur also when he made concerto recordings. And studio recordings preserve much of Richter’s repertoire for which we have no live recordings.

Richter’s on-and-off relationship with EMI began in 1961 and continued until 1980. He made his only digital concerto recordings for EMI, along with a selection of particularly valuable concerto and solo performances.

In August of 1961, while in London on his first tour of the U.K., Richter recorded a single LP for EMI including Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata (CD 1) and the Schumann Fantasia in C (CD 2), his only studio recordings of those works. Richter performed 22 of Beethoven’s 32 Sonatas in public, but never the others. As always, he played only those works he felt a special affinity with, a process of selection that was an endless mystery to his friends and admirers. (For example, he played only Beethoven’s First and Third Piano Concertos, never the other three, but also the lesser-known Triple Concerto and Choral Fantasy.) These 1961 recordings, while perhaps not as spontaneous as Richter’s live performances, are still prime examples of the pianist’s color and subtlety. Live performance recordings reveal that Richter’s mastery of the Fantasia, one of the great technical challenges in the piano literature, was not created through tape splicing!

In 1962, for the first time, Richter was recorded in concert by major Western labels. Through a unique arrangement, EMI and Deutsche Grammophon collaborated in recording solo performances during a tour of Italy, during which Richter played at least 21 times in a month and a half. EMI’s result from this collaboration was a single LP of Schumann’s music, but it was a treasure. These performances, which make up CD 3, show the pianist at his most colorful and virtuosic, some of the greatest Schumann playing ever recorded. In the Sonata, Richter takes Schumann literally when the composer marks the finale “as fast as possible” and then the coda to the movement “faster.” It is possible to play the coda faster, because of the way it is written, and Richter does it!

The following year, in Paris, Richter recorded a Schubert LP for EMI (CD 2). Schubert was one of Richter’s great specialties. His control of tone enabled him to cover a wide dynamic range, including powerful climaxes, without ever producing a harsh or edgy sound. His emotional identification with Schubert produced many memorable, moving Schubert performances, including this outstandingly gentle and lyrical version of the little A Major Sonata, perhaps the greatest recording of the work since the 78s of Dame Myra Hess. Since Richter’s technique was one of the most powerful and flexible of any pianist’s, the difficulties of the “Wanderer” Fantasy–music which even the composer could not play–simply inspire him to an outgoing rendition that revels in the excitement of Schubert’s uncommon extravagance.

Richter’s final EMI recordings of the 1960s took place in 1969. With his beloved colleagues David Oistrakh and Mstislav Rostropovich, both of whom played many concerts with him, he went to Berlin in September and recorded Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (CD 10). Apparently this recording did not result from a concert collaboration. Richter appeared in concert with Karajan only twice, and we know from accounts of their recording sessions for Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 that their collaboration was contentious and difficult. But there is no hint of strain in this gracious, comfortable performance, in which Richter appropriately yields the lead to the string players and their more prominent parts.

The following month, in Paris, Richter collaborated with Lorin Maazel and Orchestre de Paris in his first piano concerto recordings for EMI. While Richter always claimed to prefer playing for an audience to playing for microphones, his concerto recordings demonstrate the stimulation of his colleagues in the orchestra. The Brahms Second Piano Concerto (CD 11) was a Richter specialty (but he never played Brahms’s First!). It was the first piece he played in the United States, and he performed it many times throughout decades of his career. While the Paris orchestra cannot match the Chicago Symphony, with which Richter first recorded this concerto, for powerful sound and virtuosity, Richter’s playing is completely characteristic of his virtuosic command and his wide range of expression, dynamics, and tone.

At the same sessions Richter and Maazel recorded the Bartok Second Piano Concerto (CD 12), the pianist’s only studio recording of any music by the composer (although he played several other works in concert). One prize-winning pianist, asked why he played Bartok’s Third Concerto but not the Second, remarked, “Ah, save that for Pollini!” But Richter played it several times in concert and made this recording which demonstrates clearly that he was able to master even the fearsome first movement cadenza. Like few other pianists, Richter is able to convey the hard-driving rhythms of Bartok’s music without harshness or edgy tone, commanding the music in a way similar to the composer’s own performance style.

In 1970, Richter recorded another concerto with Maazel, this time in London with the London Symphony . It was Prokofiev’s rarely-heard Fifth Piano Concerto (CD 14), the only work to come out of this session and the pianist’s second recording of the piece. Although he had not only a strong affinity for Prokofiev’s work but also a close musical connection with the composer, who wrote several pieces for him, Richter played only the first and last of Prokofiev’s piano concertos. Richter is able to moderate the spiky nature of this music, which Prokofiev himself came to feel was a failure, without depriving it of its rhythmic and harmonic bite.

Also in 1970 Richter recorded Brahms’s song cycle Die schone Magalone (CD 8) with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, a singer with whom he enjoyed many collaborations in concert. Richter was an accomplished performer of art songs, and some of his earliest recordings were made with the singer Nina Dorliac. In these Brahms songs, as well as in all of Richter’s Lieder recordings, he is an assertive presence in the performance without dominating the singer. The elaborate nature of Brahms’s piano writing in this cycle makes it obvious that he wanted the piano to be heard clearly, which Richter’s participation guarantees.

From this point on, most of Richter’s recordings were made, as he preferred, during concerts. A few months before the death of his favorite violin collaborator David Oistrakh, who performed mostly as a conductor in his last years, EMI recorded a concert collaboration between Richter and the violinist Oleg Kagan, who became Oistrakh’s successor in Richter’s collaborations (July, 1974). For some reason Richter was not well known as a Mozart player, although he performed a wide range of that composer’s music, often with outstanding success. In their selection of Mozart’s violin works (CDs 5 & 11), Richter and Kagan chose three well-known Sonatas, along with two intriguing brief incomplete works. They play K. 404 as published, with a brief conclusion by another composer, but in K. 372 they stop abruptly where Mozart’s manuscript ends, taking the audience by surprise. This concert was given at the Fete Musicales de Touraine, which became one of Richter’s favorite venues.

Later in 1974 Richter recorded his only collaborations with the dynamic conductor Lovro von Matacic, in Monte-Carlo, playing the traditional coupling of the Grieg and Schumann Piano Concertos (CD 13). This was Richte’rs third recording of the Schumann, but his only studio recording of the Grieg. The intensely self-critical pianist proclaimed this Grieg performance “one of my few true successes.”

Richter’s recorded collaboration with Kagan continued in February and March of 1976, with studio recordings of two Beethoven Violin Sonatas, Op. 23 (CD 10) and Op. 24 (CD 4). Kagan’s early death prevented him from becoming well known in the West, but he was one of the greatest of Russia’s many outstanding 20th century violinists and his collaborations with Richter fully justify that conclusion. Like the Mozart Sonatas, these Beethoven works are a collaboration of equals, Kagan matching Richter step for step in the color and expressiveness of his playing. In addition to these recordings, Richter continued to play with Kagan on numerous occasions, nearly 100 concerts logged in Falk Schwarz’s Richter Concertography, until the violinist’s illness ended their collaboration in 1986. (He died in 1990.) “What a magnificent violinist he was!” Richter said.

In June of 1975, Richter made his only recording with the conductor Carlos Kleiber, his only studio recording of the Dvorak Piano Concerto (CD 12). “There’s no doubt that he’s the greatest conductor of our day,” Richter said of Kleiber, although he felt that too much tension had crept into this otherwise-admirable performance.

Later in the summer of 1976, Richter visited another favorite venue in France, Tours, where he became involved in the programming of an annual summer festival. Here he recorded two of his favorite Beethoven Piano Sonatas, the very first (Op. 2, No. 1) and Op. 10, No. 3 (CD 1). These typically outgoing, large-scale performances remind us of another Richter characteristic: he never passed up a chance to take a marked repeat in music, even the development/recapitulation sections of sonata first movements which most performers ignore today.

In September of 1977, a trip to England produced Richter’s last recording of one of his favorite concertos, Beethoven’s Third (CD 3), in collaboration with Riccardo Muti and the Philharmonia Orchestra. Richter and Muti first performed together in public in 1968 and were reunited on numerous occasions. Richter’s touching performance of Beethoven’s Andante favori (CD 1) was recorded at the same time in London to serve as a “filler” for the original LP issue.

Later that year, in December, Richter brought to Paris the conductor Yuri Nikolayevsky, his friend Oleg Kagan, and a group of Moscow Conservatory students for a concert performance of Alban Berg’s Chamber Concerto (CD 14). The timing of this recording is much longer than usual because, at Richter’s insistence, the performance includes a lengthy repeat marked in the score but almost always ignored. Although Nikolayevsky was not known outside of Russia, Richter highly esteemed his work, and wanted him as his conductor for this difficult score. According to the pianist, this performance was preceded by approximately 100 rehearsals! The young musicians, Richter said, were extremely enthusiastic about all those rehearsals, perhaps because they were held at his home and he fed them afterwards. Richter’s enormous repertoire included Berg’s Sonata, Op. 1, and Webern’s Variations (but no Schoenberg).

In April of 1979 Richter returned to London for a last collaboration with Muti and the Philharmonic, his only recording of Mozart’s Concerto No. 22 (CD 9), for which he used the solo cadenzas composed by his friend and colleague Benjamin Britten. The original “filler” for the LP issue was Mozart’s Symphony No. 24, not involving Richter. The qualities of dignity and grandeur which Richter brings to this performance are effectively supported by Muti and the orchestra, large scale playing which never overwhelms the music.

The 1979 Tours Festival became the site of one of Richter’s most unusual projects, a typical example of his ceaseless exploration of the keyboard repertoire. Richter and the pianist Andrei Gavrilov collaborated in a complete series of Handel’s Suites, originally for harpsichord. Richter played the pieces found here on CDs 6 and 7, Gavrilov the remainder. A video of one of these concerts shows the pianists turning pages for each other. Richter’s baroque style (he also played much Bach) is not the favored mode of the early 21st century, with more scholarly execution of ornaments and a less dramatic approach. But he never romanticizes the music, generally maintaining strict tempos and always an enviable clarity which allows every note to be heard.

Richter’s final recording for EMI, made in Austria in 1980, is his only recorded performance of a major work by his beloved Schubert, the familiar “Trout” Quintet (CD 4). His collaborators were members of the Borodin Quartet, colleagues with whom he played often between 1961 and 1994, and the bassist Georg Hortnagel. While as a soloist Richter could be one of the most assertive pianists ever, in a chamber collaboration like this he is happy to be one among equals, his glittering tone and expressive shadings contributing greatly to this glorious performance. –Leslie Gerber

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