At 79, Richter has some surprises for us New offerings from the piano's elusive eccentric

SOUNDS ADVICE

April 11, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Among the century's greatest pianistic careers, Sviatoslav Richter's is the most peculiar. He plays unconventional repertory that even other pianists do not know, he plays conventional repertory in often unconventional ways, he scrupulously avoids coming to the United States (his last trip here was almost a quarter of a century ago) and he shuns the recording studio as if he were afraid he might catch a cold.

Nevertheless, recordings of Richter proliferate -- mostly on small Italian "pirate" labels that offer transcripts of live broadcasts. But now

the 79-year-old pianist has authorized a major label -- London Records -- to issue a series of discs, recorded live in Vienna and Mantua in the late 1980s. And two other major labels -- Deutsche Grammophon and EMI -- have begun to reissue, for the first time on compact disc, some of the classic studio recordings the great Russian pianist made in the 1950s, '60s and early '70s.

How singular a pianist Richter is can be judged by the repertory on the London discs. A few major pianists -- Maurizio Pollini is the outstanding example -- may be courageous enough to program an obscure Schumann work or a piece of abstract modernism as difficult as the "Variations" of Anton Webern.

But what can one say about a pianistic Don Quixote whose Schumann recital consists almost entirely of such dark corners of that composer's works as the "Four Fugues," the "Blumenstuck" and the "Nachtstucke"? Or whose recital of 20th-century music contains not only the Webern "Variations," but also obscure works by Hindemith, Szymanowski, Bartok and Shostakovich?

Who would attend such recitals? Richter's legend is so great that if a Carnegie Hall recital of such a program were announced tonight, you can be assured that the line at the box office tomorrow morning would be three-deep along 57th Street.

Word of this extraordinary pianist, based on reports by Western visitors returning from the former Soviet Union and some primitive-sounding records, began to filter through the Iron Curtain in the early 1950s. Expectations were heightened in 1955 when Emil Gilels, a thundering Russian pianist in the Lhevinne-Rachmaninov mold, became the first Soviet musician to perform in the United States. "Wait till you hear Richter," Gilels told his admirers.

But when Richter finally made his way west in 1960, we did not get the super-Gilels we expected. Not only did we get a musician whose repertory and style made comparisons with other pianists difficult, we also had a pianist who alternated between volcanic intensity and introspective, Olympian detachment.

Added to this is Richter's peculiar attitude toward pianistic accuracy. Several decades of listening to recorded music had accustomed the public to expect pianists who made almost no mistakes. Even the once-lackadaisical Arthur Rubinstein cleaned up his act and played what was on the page. But Richter had what seemed a cavalier attitude to accuracy. Though patently the possessor of one of the great keyboard techniques in history, there would be nights when he dropped not fistfuls of notes, but trunkloads of them.

But holding Richter to the standard of conventional pianists is a little like comparing an ordinary preacher to St. Paul. And this has not only to do with the magnitude and originality of Richter's talent, but also with the circumstance that, like St. Paul, Richter found his calling late in life.

It was only when he was 23 -- an age when colleagues like Gilels were already launched on their careers -- that Richter decided to become a pianist. When he went to Moscow in 1937 to study with the great Heinrich Neuhaus, he was a largely self-taught musician who had been working as an assistant conductor at the Odessa Opera. Neuhaus, whose earlier students had included Vladimir Horowitz as well as Gilels and whose later students were to include Radu Lupu, wisely did not try to teach Richter anything, but only offered suggestions.

The result was one of music's great originals. Richter attacked the keys in eccentric ways, allowing the sound of his fingers to be heard crashing on the keys, and he moved his arms and shoulders in ways that were as unorthodox as his finger and hand movements. He did all the things teachers advise against, but he achieved a miraculous range of sounds that surpassed even that of Walter Gieseking, the greatest keyboard colorist of the prewar years.

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