The set is plain. Sviatoslav Richter is 80, looking physically like a shadow of himself. He’s seated at a table, sometimes appearing depressed. His memories flow extemporaneously. They’re filled with a wide range of emotions, perhaps a microcosm of his playing.
He can be uplifting, impassioned, regretful, disappointed, inspired, exalted and traumatized as he relives his Russian childhood and family disintegration. A poignant sub theme: his father, a pianist and Odessa Conservatory professor was executed during the era of Soviet purges. A recurring motif of sadness permeates many of his reflections.
In the same vein, we learn that Richter’s father, who taught the child piano, was “horrified” listening to his son’s early practicing efforts at age 8.
He complained to his wife. “He never plays scales or exercises.” And she tempered his anger by saying, “Leave him alone.”
Richter recalls his first piece learned: Chopin’s first Nocturne, followed by the E minor Etude. With that said, Monsaingeon cross fades to the Etude, with a display of the pianist’s jaw-dropping virtuosity!
(Footage of Richter’s performances permeate the documentary affording a historical perspective that matches the pianist’s moving narrative)
We learn over the course of a two part documentary, that “mama” met “papa” at the Odessa Conservatory where she was his piano student. And though considered a privileged, landlord’s daughter, she married what was considered a “commoner.” (Her father registered his disapproval of the marriage)
As an only child, Richter was the favorite of his doddering old aunties who sheltered him for a time during a family separation, and there he gave his first concert, performing the Schumann Concerto at ONE piano.
Every aspect of “Slava’s” life is explored: It includes his early professional engagement as an “accompanist” in theaters and clubs. (for singers, violinists, and circus performers, and his subsequent stint as an opera coach) He intones his love for Wagner as he ingested whole scores at the piano, including those of Verdi.
In a career overview, Richter emphasizes that his Odessa debut was not a professional high point. (Often “politics” clouded what should have been art for its own sake) But what resonates in his self reviews, are self-deprecations that are in glaring contrast to what critics had declared great musical successes!
When Glenn Gould regales Richter’s Schubert G Major sonata, as tantamount to a second coming, Richter dilutes his excitement with a lukewarm response: “the playing was unremarkable.”
Suddenly, Richter perks up and springs to life, recounting his years at the Moscow Conservatory as a student of Heinrich Neuhaus. A mouse click to 26:00 Part One through 31 is worth a preview, even before apportioning a large chunk of time to absorb this awe-inspiring film.
Neuhaus was “like a father,” he says, yet more “lighthearted” than his own (The music professor had declared Richter “a genius” after his Conservatory audition)
And how did Neuhaus influence the pianist? Richter views this teacher as his personal idol.
“It was in tone production–he freed up my playing. My sound had to be opened up.”
And conversely, “he taught me how to make silences sound.”
For a sample of Neuhaus’s OWN playing, a snatch (Kreisleriana) from his Moscow Conservatory concert is inserted, supporting Richter’s hyperbole. (He confesses that his mentor played “like a pig” in the first two Schumann openers–comments revealing Sviatoslav’s unabashed candor and sharp-witted humor)
In the entertainment realm, Richter is caught on camera playing “Liszt” in a Russian-made movie about GLINKA. Slava with a wig, in period costume is a sight to behold, rendering a lively Glinka composition. Suddenly, a magical cinematic moment: The composer, Glinka, is standing beside him, shaking his hand.
Richter recalls this “dramatic exchange” as a peak, theatrical moment.
Of note, more than a few of the pianist’s opinionated, though heartfelt responses to people, places, performances, and pianos during his distinguished career:
On America.. “too standardized.” He was not fond of time spent touring the US. (an understatement)
About pianos, and choosing one for a concert. When asked, “what is required of your instrument?”
Answer: “I require more of myself.”
On playing with music in recital: “It’s more honest.. you can play exactly what’s written.”
Whom does Richter prefer, Haydn or Mozart?
Reply: “Mozart!” He says, with authority! (“It’s easier to phrase Haydn….Mozart is too difficult.”) “The secret of playing Mozart” evades him.
Nina Dorliak, singer/recitalist who became Richter’s long-term live-in companion following Richter’s stint as her accompanist, intersperses commentary on his life, practicing routines and performances. (From Wiki: “She accompanied Richter both in his complex life and career. She supported him in his last sickness, and died herself a few months later, on May 17, 1998.”)
She insists, “he practiced 10 to 12 hours per day.”
Not surprisingly, Richter denies it: “No, never. It was three hours.” (The camera pans to what looks like a timer, though it might have been a metronome)
Again a contradiction of observations.
Sadly, the documentary ends on a somber note:
“I don’t like myself,” Richter admits, as he slumps into a reclusive pose. A dimming fade-out to credits brings part 2, to conclusion.
Looking back on Sviatoslav’s colorful musical journey, admirers around the world continue to celebrate his artistry, humanity, and generosity. (Often, he donated free concerts at schools in the countryside and beyond)
And above all, they treasure his recordings and you tube videos that memorialize his musical genius.
So to dearly beloved, Slava,
Rest in Peace.