Richter was born in Zhitomir, Ukraine but grew up in Odessa. Unusually, he was largely self-taught although his organist father provided him with a basic education in music. Even at an early age, Richter was an excellent sight-reader, and regularly practiced with local opera and ballet companies. He developed a lifelong passion for opera, vocal and chamber music that found its full expression in the festival he established in Grange de Meslay, France. He started to work at the Odessa Conservatory where he accompanied the opera rehearsals. He gave his first recital in 1934 at the engineer club of Odessa but did not formally study piano until three years later, when he enrolled in the Moscow Conservatory, which waived the entrance exam for the young prodigy after it was clear he would not pass. He studied with Heinrich Neuhaus who also taught Emil Gilels, and who claimed Richter to be “the genius pupil, for whom he had been waiting all his life”. In 1940, while still a student, he gave the world premiere of the Sonata No. 6 by Sergei Prokofiev, a composer with whose works he was ever after associated. He also became known for skipping compulsory political lessons at the conservatory and being expelled twice during his first year. Richter remained a political outsider in the U.S.S.R. and never joined the Party.
Richter met the soprano Nina Dorliak in 1945 when he accompanied her in a program that included songs by Rimsky-Korsakov and Prokofiev. “This was the first meeting in an association that would last the rest of their lives. Richter and Dorliak were never officially married, but they were constant companions. She was the practical counterbalance to his impulsive nature. She would wind his watch for him, remind him of appointments, and manage his professional commitments” (Geffen 1999). In 1949 he won the Stalin Prize, which led to extensive concert tours in Russia, Eastern Europe and China.
The West first became aware of Richter through recordings made in the 1950s. He was not allowed to tour the United States until 1960, but when he did, he created a sensation, playing a series of sold-out concerts in Carnegie Hall. Touring, however, was not Richter’s forté. He preferred not to plan concerts years in advance, and in later years took to playing on very short notice in small, often darkened halls, sometimes with only a small lamp lighting his piano. He died in Moscow while studying for a concert series he was to give.
Richter’s repertoire spanned the major works of the piano repertoire, although with many omissions (e.g., Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Beethoven’s Waldstein sonata and Fourth and Fifth piano concertos, Schubert’s A-major sonata D. 959). Among his noted recordings are works by Franz Schubert, Beethoven, Bach (whose Well-Tempered Clavier part II he is said to have learned by heart in one month), Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt, Sergei Prokofiev, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Alexander Scriabin and many others. He was said to be the finest interpreter of the piano works of Robert Schumann. He gave the premiere of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7 (which he learned in just four days before staging a performance of the work), and Prokofiev dedicated his Sonata No. 9 to him. Apart from playing solo he also enjoyed playing chamber music with partners such as David Oistrakh, Benjamin Britten, and Mstislav Rostropovich. He had unusually large hands, capable of taking a twelfth.
Despite his huge discography, Richter hated the process of recording. Glenn Gould called him one of the most powerful musical communicators of our time, and it was in concert that Richter’s musical genius found its full expression.
Edited by Gormon on 12 Nov 2010, 10:43
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