Earth-shattering Passion on a Richter Scale

This month, Lionel Choi pays tribute to Sviatoslav Richter (1915 - 1997), one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, who passed away on the 1st August.

On August 1st, the music world mourned the loss of Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, who died of a heart attack in a Moscow hospital. He was 82.

Richter was a great pianist. I don't think we even need to qualify that last statement. In a world that is dominated by countless young virtuosos who make better keyboard acrobats than musicians, the passing of Richter certainly marked the tragic end to an era of piano-playing of such a special stature and personality.

He had a huge, formidable technique, and it is amazing how he used it to illuminate the musical aspects of the pieces before him, breathing life and passion into every note. Richter was a storyteller, a magician. He had a bold, vivid musical imagination, one that mirrored his profound and deep love for what he did. He spoke in a unique yet sensible and powerfully poetic language, hardly ever resorting to controversy to gain attention. Indeed, each time you hear a Richter record, you just have to sit up and listen.

Given the legendary status that he had long acquired, it therefore comes as a surprise that he actually had a fairly late start to his professional piano career.

Born in 1915 in Ukraine, Richter started off by teaching himself the piano. After brief and relatively unknown stints as conductor and composer, he finally found his true calling at the keyboard. While other child prodigies were stunning audiences the world over at tender young ages, Richter only gave his first recital at the age of 19.

Formal lessons only started in 1937 when he entered the Moscow Conservatory as a student of Heinrich Neuhaus. Besides embarking on a close friendship with fellow student Emil Gilels, another great pianist, he also worked with composer Sergei Prokofiev, some of whose works he premiered, and who also dedicated the Ninth Sonata to the young pianist.

In fact, so successful was this symbiosis that Richter came to be known throughout his career as the foremost interpreter of Prokofiev's music. "Then as now, the whole man existed for me in his works, which meant as much to me as he did himself," he wrote after Prokofiev's death.

Despite giving as many as 120 concerts a year, Richter's remarkable pianism never quite reached the West (except through poor-quality records) until 1960, when he played first in Finland, then in America where his electrifying playing took the whole country by storm. The New York Times proclaimed him to be a "pianist of style, poetry and imagination: a complete artist".

And now, nearly four decades later, Richter had left behind an extensive discography by which he will be fondly remembered, and which embraces an immensely-varied repertoire. We particularly remember how he was able to expound profound insights in Beethoven, Rachmaninov, Schumann, Tchaikovsky and Scriabin; how he communicated the sublime spirituality and humanity in Schubert's music; how we were baffled yet utterly swept away by his Bach playing; and how he championed Prokofiev and Shostakovich, bringing us closer to the heart of their music with jaw-dropping mastery.

With his sad departure, Richter has left a large vacuum in the music world that will certainly remain unfilled for a long, long time to come.

Click here to hear an extract of Richter's performance of Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No.7. You need the RealAudio 3.0 player. (Note that due to disk space constraints, the files will not be played as a continuous stream but will be downloaded onto your local drive.)

Selected Discography

Interesting Fact File


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Copyright © 1997 Lionel H Y Choi