Sunday, February 22, 2009

A Protean Artist

Living a life that was completely immersed in his music, Sviatislov Richter truly was a "protean" artist. He was born on March 7, 1915 in the Ukrainian town of Zhitomir and a year later moved to Odessa with his family. Richter began his career rather late in life, beginning serious study at the Moscow Conservatory in the late thirties after an eclectic musical upbringing. He relates his personal story in the magnificent, Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations by Bruno Monsaingeon.

The personal voice of Richter conveyed in this amazing volume is as magnetic as his playing (I regret I only know his music through recordings). He was friends with Emil Gilels, Rostropovich and Prokofiev, and many other notable twentieth century artists. His nomadic existence mirrors the breadth of the music he surveyed and performed over his lifetime. In this book we find intimate and interesting portraits of composers and artists, friends of the man who shares the spirit of music. Inspirational on almost every page Richter's life, at least for this music-lover, comes alive with every detail. The book is divided into two sections: "Richter in his own words", and "Notebooks: On Music". I will keep them both near my music collection for future reference.

Richter's own words may convey some of the excitement I experienced reading this volume. On Performing:

I had to give recital at the Soviet Embassy in Paris. The piano tuner took one look at their Steinway and told me that in his opinion it was unplayable. I immediately cancelled the concert. The ambassador ignored my cancellation. At five o'clock in the afternoon of the day of the concert, he rang me: "The audience is coming in. What shall I do? Shoot myself?" His words moved me to pity and so I decided to go there in spite of everything, convinced that the concert would be a disaster. I went out on to the platform, thinking, "To hell with the piano and the rest of them", and launched into Brahm's Sonata in F sharp minor. It was probably my best concert of the season.

The book is full of similar stories and inspirational thoughts from this great pianist and musician. I will keep both his recordings and this volume at my side for future excursions into the world of music.

Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations by Bruno Monsaingeon. Stewart Spencer, trans. Princeton University Press. 2001.

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