Richter: The Enigma: A Film by Bruno Monsaingeon (1998/2014)

by | Jul 6, 2015 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews

Richter: The Enigma – A Film by Bruno Monsaingeon (1998/2014)

Cast: Sviatoslav Richter
Studio: Idealeaudience 3073514 [Distr. by Naxos]
Video: 1.33:1 for 4:3 color and B&W
Sound: PCM Stereo
Subtitles: Russian, French & English 

Time: 158 minutes
Rating: *****

Film-maker Bruno Monsaineon admits that the attempt to make a documentary about Russian musical giant Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997) might have proved insurmountable, since he wished not to create a cinematic record made of still shots, concert performances, and testimonies. He had to convince one of the most elusive, unconventional, and often anti-social of artists to communicate about himself, candidly, without recourse to editorializing or apology for the artist’s point of view. The movie would be framed by one piece of music, the slow movement from the Schubert B-flat Sonata, D. 960.  Later in the film, pianist and media commentator Glenn Gould notes: “I had never had the patience for Schubert and what I construed as his repetitious and colossal rhetoric: but when I witnessed Richter in performance of the already-lengthy B-flat Sonata, played even more slowly, I realized – in a trance, a hypnotic state – that my prejudice against Schubert’s repetitions had transformed to see something thoroughly organic. Richter came to represent that artist who creates the illusion that he serves as a ‘conduit’ for the composer as he relates directly to the listener.”

The film certainly captures, somewhat lyrically, the chronology of Richter’s personal history, fluctuating between his reading (in 1995 and 1996) from prepared questions to still photos and some home-movies of his family and concerto life.  In one sequence, we glimpse the five-year-old Richter through a series of dissolving images set on water. We learn about his father, Tiofil Danilovich Richter (1872-1941), a fine pianist of German extraction who eventually secured a musical post in Odessa. His mother Anna (1893-1963) came from a family of landowners.  Not until 1918 did Sviatoslav indicate any interest in art – we see constant views of Richter’s walking like Thoreau in the solitude of the woods – and this consisted in painting and cinema.  A propos of painting, Richter later praises Russian Robert Falk (1886-1958) as an artist who imbued in him a sense for symmetry. Music, specifically opera, came to him in 1921, especially with his gift for sight-reading. “I have a penetrating eye. I see the notes, and my fingers follow. . . .I have no patience for analysis, and I hate to work. . . .I never practice more than three hours a day.  You tell me some pianists practice for 12 hours – impossible! My eye alone gives me my mania for exactness.”

Richter had an unconventional education: “I hate school.  Even with Neuhaus – who in 1943 accepted Richter after long conversations about their mutual idol, Wagner – I couldn’t stand the political portions of our Conservatory, Stalin-bred education.” Richter was expelled twice, and each time Neuhaus had to plead for his re-admission.  Neuhaus recalled: “When he played, he became a free spirit. Such a colossal intensity in such a young student.”  Richter recalls, “Neuhaus gave me Schumann, especially the Kreisleriana, Op. 16 and the Concerto, also emphasized by my instructor Franz Shreker.” Richter plays Aufschwung from Op. 12. We soon witness Neuhaus in concert and in various teaching sites. “Neuhaus also taught me to listen to as well to perform Debussy. Neuhaus liberated my sonority.”  We watch Richter execute a veritable typhoon in What the West Wind Saw prelude.  Richter’s perhaps ultimate point about Neuhaus: “He taught me stillness, as in the opening G of the Liszt Sonata.” This grand sense of dramatic silence would characterize the Richter ethos. Richter originally performed in clubs, picking up salon and popular music, much like another of specialties, Brahms.  Later, we hear a stunning portion of the Brahms Sonata, Op. 2 as well as a Paris rehearsal with Lorin Maazel of the B-flat Piano Concerto.  At 19, Richter gave an all-Chopin recital in Odessa for selected friends. We then cut to a blazing rendition of the C-sharp Minor Etude, from Op. 10. We will also hear the last pages from the Fourth Ballade, a Richter staple.

Of the multifarious luminaries who occupy the Richter universe, we meet chanteuse and concert singer Nina Dorliac (1908-1998), with whom Richter in 1946 formed a personal and artistic alliance. Dorliac comments upon several subjects, including the various artists with whom Richter worked. Richter calls Dorliac “a veritable princess.” Richter recalls Maria Yudina, a “gigantic personality, strong in Liszt and Bach, played with originality, strangeness and extravagance.”  He and Dorliac remember the pressure on gifted musicians like Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Both Richter and Dorliac recall the 1930s Soviet Union as a bad time, one of political repression and accusations.  Later, with the death of Stalin in 1953, Richter will call the entire series of “celebrations” of Stalin’s passing, with public mourning by Beria and Khruschchev, as “a grotesque burlesque on a huge scale. They all hated his guts. And I had to play Chopin’s Funeral March and other ‘grieving’ pieces. It was for Prokofiev in 1941 that Richter played the Fifth Concerto, which under the composer had gone badly with the public.  “It really was the War – in the midst of destruction and sadness – that launched my career, ironically. I performed the Tchaikovsky Concerto. I played the Prokofiev Sixth Sonata, for which he praised me. Prokofiev was an interesting and dangerous person: he had ‘warlike’ principles to which he remained staunch. He hated Rachmaninov!  Why?  Because of the influence of his music, particularly the Etudes-Tableaux. “With the death of Stalin, Part I ends, to the energetic strains of the Rachmaninov g minor Prelude and the tolling bells of the Concerto No. 2.

Part II concentrates on the cultural reactions to the Cold War, and especially Richter’s 1960 American tour, which he consciously resisted out of a kind of personal xenophobia.  “I am forever a European phenomenon,” he admits. Richter kept busy, absorbing much more of the global keyboard literature. Everyone who loved the keyboard had heard from Emil Gilels and Lazar Berman, “Wait ‘till you hear Richter!” Impraesario Sol Hurok had made several gestures to Moscow and Richter, much in response to Artur Rubinstein’s assessment: “Richter is a grand musician with great intelligence.”  Consistently, the Central Committee of Soviet Russian told Hurok that Richter was ill and could not oblige American concert dates; but a combination of allied Soviet artists and a fortuitous spotting of Richter on a Moscow street by Hurok belied the authorities, and Richter was to give a series of concerts in America, including Boston, Chicago, and New York.  Given the KGB watch dogs on his trail, Richter confessed to being “in a perpetual state of panic.” Also, he did not care for American audiences and concert life, which he labels “too standardized.”  Several people knew that Richter had played Franz Liszt – blond wig and all – in a Soviet movie about Mikhail Glinka, performing a Liszt improvisation on a march from Ruslan and Ludmilla. As a post-mortem, Richter felt he had not played well in America: “I had not merited the praise of their critics.” [Richter only really liked three things about America: the museums, the orchestras, and the cocktails…Ed.]

The lion’s share of the second half devotes itself to concert performances and rehearsals, along with reminiscences of major musical personalities. Yevgeny Mravinsky, the authoritarian conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic, Richter labels “a true chef d’orchestre. . .who relished conducting the Tchaikovsky Concerto.” Richter, Oistrakh, and “Slava” Rostropovich worked with Herbert von Karajan individually and collectively – the latter for the Beethoven Triple Concerto – and despite the DGG glamour photos and hype, Richter calls Karajan “a mule” when it came to allowing any of us rhythmic lassitude. In the last movement of our Tchaikovsky, he would not relinquish the orchestral tutti near my last flourish. . . I can settle the matter with the word ‘German.’” A much happier collaboration occurs before us with the Beethoven “Triple” with conductor Kyrill Kondrashin. Richter fondly calls the young David Oistrakh “a lovely boy.” Oistrakh’s lasting value to Richter: “he taught me about the air between the arms during a musical realization.” Oistrakh’s impeccable musicianship shines in the last movement of the Brahms D Minor Sonata with Richter.  Oistrakh passed his own skills onto Oleg Kagan (b. 1946), who along with his wife Natalia Gutman, performs with Richter. “I admire Kagan’s endurance.  Natalia Gutman embodies total artistic honesty.” And they perform a section of the Tchaikovsky Op. 50 Trio. Richter coaches Andrei Gavrilov, openly enthusiastic of that young man’s Handel.  Then we witness a lovely Harmonious Blacksmith set of variants from Richter himself.

With Benjamin Britten at the Aldeburgh Festival we watch the two musical giants collaborate in Mozart’s K. 448 Sonata, four hands. The occasional awed look from Britten to Richter speaks volumes. Richter himself appears on the podium for a brief stint as a conductor, leading Slava in Prokofiev’s Symphonie Concertante, Op. 125. And then there is ever-anxious, “nervous, neurasthenic” Dmitri Shostakovich: “Amity between us took some time, and it did not arrive until after Oistrakh and I gave a violin sonata that Shostakovich heard. “ But when we hear Richter’s performance of a Shostakovich excerpt of a prelude and fugue, it resounds with white heat. “Working with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is difficult,” Richter quips.  “He’s so intent upon the words, which I must not overwhelm.” They rehearse a grueling song by Hugo Wolf, in which Richter performs his demanding part on a Pleyel instrument.

Perhaps the most telling sequence involves Richter’s visit to a piano showroom, where he openly rejects a Steinway as “unplayable.”  He exclaims, “My chosen instrument must accord with my destiny.” He selects a Yamaha, whose company has underwritten director Monsaingeon’s project. “With this instrument, I can make the most extreme pianissimo.” As Nina Dorliac comments, “He has the extreme temperament, all fire in his explosive fortes, yet capable of the most extraordinary bel canto.” We then witness a pearly, diaphanous section of the first movement of the Saint-Saens g minor Concerto. A French interviewer queries Richter on his infamous cancellations of concerts. “I can’t always feel to play in the grand concert halls. Then, I turn around and play in a small salon or school, for free.” His favorite music, Schubert, particularly the G Major Fantasie-Sonata.  Richter replies to a comment about his sang-froid, his frigid demeanor and sound: “I invent nothing. I maintain an objective eye. I favor a new Classicism, as did Prokofiev, who adored Haydn. I, too, admire Haydn for clarity and form.” We have a long moment from the finale of the Haydn D Major Concerto, beautifully nuanced.  What about Mozart?  “His secret is terribly difficult, and the difficulty lies in the response to each of his phrases.”   How about Spanish music?  “I content myself with Ravel, his Alborada del gracioso.”

The last sequence hurts the most: Richter, aged and frail, the features somewhat shrunken and the eyes full of the doubt and emptiness we see in Leonardo’s last self-portrait. “I have never liked myself,” he laments. The music of the Schubert B-flat Sonata returns, now rife with existential resignation.  We have confronted the enigma, and it is us all.

—Gary Lemco

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