Musical Times

In the doll’s house

In the doll’s house

Wright, David

Sviatoslav Richter: notebooks and conversations Burno Monsaingeon Translated by Stewart Spencer Faber & Faber (London, 2001); xxxii, 432pp; L25. ISBN 03 571 20553 4.

‘Im not mad, I’m the most normal person you could imagine. I just mention that in passing. Perhaps I might have wanted to be mad. It’s always like that […I .’ This disclaimer concludes a passage describing Richter’s relationship with Shostakovich, one that had also began rather disconcertingly: `There was a man staring at me. He had white eyes, with no pupils. Suddenly I realized that it was Shostakovich’. It contrasts with Richter’s feelings for Britten:

unlike Benjamin Britten, whom I regarded as a true friend, there was never any real friendship between Shostakovich and me […] I had difficulty getting used to his [Shostakovich’s] presence, I always went weak at the knees. He was too jumpy and clinically depressed. A genius, but completely mad, like the rest of us.

Many would feel that it is indeed appropriate to apply the term ‘genius’ to Richter. But running together with his achievement as a pianist was a truly extraordinary character, and a personality that sometimes manifested itself in notoriously bizarre ways. In its own, paler way, this rather eccentric book offers something of a mirror, but unfortunately only in a very restricted sense does Richter’s propensity or quality as an artist emerge.

The book is made up of several discrete parts. The first, an extended introduction, gives Bruno Monsaingeon’s account of the circumstances and conditions which accompanied his collaboration with Richter and led to his film about the pianist, Richter the enigma. Then follows a section of chapters headed `Richter in his own words’ (so neatly avoiding the term ‘Conversations’ featured in the title), of which the one on Prokofiev originally appeared in the 1970s. The third section, entitled `Notebooks: on music’, transcribes Richter’s own written comments on music, performance and performers from Christmas 1970 to 1995. These observations run the spectrum from profundity to high rudeness and at their best are characterised by shafts of perception regardless of whether cudgel or rapier is employed. The volume concludes with three appendices (only two of which are listed on the contents page) that give statistical information about repertoire, career highlights and the musical partners with whom Richter worked. As Monsaingeon explains from 1940 Richter maintained detailed records of his concert giving, which, over a span of fifty-five years, amounted to `more than 27,000 performances at around 3,600 concerts in a thousand different places’. Monsaingeon estimates that Richter had 833 works in his repertoire, as well as some 600 songs.

This book is undoubtedly the result of a considerable commitment by Monsaingeon to his subject, and there will be many devotees of the performer who will feel that Richter has been well served by the labour it represents. But there will be others who will be less satisfied because of the ways and areas in which its shortcomings are evident. Firstly, there is a lack of balance that prevents the reader gaining a more rounded sense of Richter’s achievement. As recounted here, his life has elements of pure horror, such as the situation with his parents, of his father’s execution and the circumstances of his mother’s remarriage. His description of depression is vivid and harrowing. But the portrayal of his life is not complete in other ways. For example, the singer and his frequent musical collaborator Nina Dorliac, whom Richter married in 1946, is never referred to as having been his wife. The book would also have been better served had there been more editorial intervention for clarification or to explain inconsistencies that feature across the chapters in the first section (the Prokofiev work that Richter gave as a conductor with Rostropovich as cello soloist is called the `Symphony-Concerto’ when the event is first mentioned, and as the `Second Cello Concerto’ in the `On Prokofiev’ chapter).

The biggest issue of the book is raised by the methodology through which the ‘conversations’ were created. As Monsaingeon explains,

Of course, there could be no question of offering a simple transcript of our conversations, as the subjects we broached were discussed in a totally random manner, and Richter’s replies were sometimes no more than simple interjections, brief phrases that made no sense when divorced from the context of my questions. Starting from a barely coherent mass of more than a thousand pages, I had to compile an account that had some semblance of continuity, adopting a sort of montage technique.

Neither did Richter’s manner of speech help: `He kept hesitating and his thoughts came in fits and starts, depending to a large extent on promptings from me, so that I clearly needed to make considerable changes in order to adapt what he said to the written form.’ These are issues which inevitably arise in an oral history, but Monsaingeon’s decision to recast the material as a seamless first person narrative, within which he has also chosen to incorporate further additional material gathered from other sources (but without footnote reference), has serious implications, regardless of Monsaingeon’s sincere belief that the result is `entirely faithful’. All too rarely is corroborative material offered in support.

It is the transcriptions of Richter’s notebooks that testify to the greatest sense of Richter the musician. Usually aphoristic, his comments show his relish for music and his amusement at the human condition. His verdict on a recital of Beethoven quartets – ‘A massive programme solidly and ponderously played by large fat Germans. Not bad, but very German / After a concert like this, what better than to go to a restaurant and order sausages, sauerkraut and so weiter?’ – contrasts with this reaction to Schnabel’s performance of Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor op.10 no.1, heard on a car journey: ‘I was literally astounded by this remarkable interpretation. / The sonata is suddenly brought to life to the point where it is almost palpable. It was splendid.’ Or, as in the case of a recital of

Schumann Lieder:

A magnificent singer singing magnificent music and, beside him at the piano, a professional killer, an undertaker’s assistant who rains mortal blows on the listener […] I can’t begin to understand what aberration has led these two men to make music together.

Peter Schreier singing Schubert earned the Wowing accolade:

Schreier sang magnificently this evening, and his sense of Schubert’s style and sentiment were altogether satisfying. Only `Der Muller and der Bach’ and the final lullaby failed to convince: there was something too human about the brook’s replies, whereas everything should be unreal, strange and as though steeped in deathly cold.

[X] exclaimed in such a loud voice that everyone could hear: `lt’s not Schubert. Pollini, that’s the real Schubert for you!’ What an idiotic and typically French way of trying to be original.

The image presented by the cover photograph is itself starkly powerful, though ambiguous. Whether it is intended to be understood as a portrait of the artist as victim, in the guise of a moonstruck Pierrot (shades of Nijinsky in his Petrushka costume, perhaps), or as an other-worldly visionary, Richter’s crumpled ragdoll pose, offset by the staring eyes is not comfortable to behold. But, however interpreted, it sets the scene for the manic, roller-coaster of a ride that lies within. On several levels, one can only be astonished.

Copyright Musical Times Publications, Ltd. Summer 2001

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