Obituary: Sviatoslav Richter

Sviatoslav Richter was a connoisseur's pianist, a supreme lyric poet of the keyboard for whom the piano was an extension of his own body and mind and a means to musical thought that was devoted to the composer in question.

Richter was not a virtuoso in the flamboyant sense of parading his talent to dazzle an audience; instead he required from his listeners an act of intense concentration to match his own incomparable approach to the music. Those who could not summon this were apt to grow restless during his performances, although even they might realise that they were hearing something exceptional.

His interpretations were more a matter of re-creation than reproduction, so that no two performances of the same work were likely to be identical. His repertory ranged from Bach, played with a clarity of insight into the music's structure and content, to Prokofiev, with whom he had a close association after giving the premiere of the composer's Sixth Sonata in 1942, and later of the Seventh and Ninth Sonatas, the latter of which is dedicated to him. He also made a single conducting appearance in the premiere of Prokofiev's Symphony- Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in 1952, with Mstislav Rostropovich as soloist.

Richter was born at Zhitomir in Ukraine, where his father was a pianist, organist and teacher, and a composer in a small way. The Richters were of combined Polish and German extraction, and soon after the boy's birth they moved to Odessa, a city where other musical reputations of distinction were fostered, including that of David Oistrakh, and where Igor Oistrakh, Emil Gilels and Nathan Milstein were all born, and later studied. Having absorbed the rudiments of music from his father, Richter was largely self-taught at the piano, except for some lessons from one of his father's pupils, and quickly showed unusual early facility in keyboard technique.

Although never a child prodigy in the accepted sense, Richter began to compose at the age of eight, and reportedly wrote an opera before his teen years. He certainly became adept at playing from orchestral scores, which took him, in 1930, when he was 15, to the Odessa Opera as a repetiteur. A few years later, in 1934, he gave his first solo recital, and the experience was so successful and pleasing to him that he abandoned thoughts of conducting to concentrate on a pianistic career. To that end he took himself to the Moscow Conservatoire as a student of the famous teacher Heinrich Neuhaus.

Neuhaus found his new pupil "already a complete artist", with the ability to build a piece "so that it seemed to lie before him like an immense landscape, revealed to the eye at a single glance". This visionary sense of what was comprised in a complete music work pervaded all his later performances, from the time he gave his first Prokofiev premiere while still a student. Shortly before that, his father fell victim to one of the Stalinist purges and his mother sought refuge in Germany, not to see her son again until she was flown to New York for his debut there nearly 20 years later.

Richter's early appearances were confined by the authorities to the former Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc, whence occasional Western visitors who were fortunate to catch one of his concerts brought back travellers' tales of his exceptional talent. These tales were reinforced by an early recording of Schumann which circulated in the West. Richter was consequently already something of a legend by the time he came himself to the West in 1960, first to Helsinki, Chicago and New York, and the next year to sold-out houses at the Royal Festival Hall in London.

Here his debut programme was typically uncompromising, beginning with a small Haydn sonata, but with the rest entirely devoted to Prokofiev, including the encores. In that year Richter published in Moscow a book of reminiscences of Prokofiev, whose entire piano works he had committed to memory and whom he continued to champion persistently.

Richter also became admired for his playing of Chopin and Schubert, whose duet music he played, with Benjamin Britten as his partner, at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1965. Preferring the ambience of smaller festivals like this, he began the previous year an association with the Fetes Musicales at Grange de Meslay, near Tours in France.

A fastidious, not to say pernickety performer, he was acutely sensitive to the horizontal plane of the keyboard, sometimes requiring it to be checked with a spirit level, especially in a recording studio. He liked to record at night, from about nine o'clock until he was tired, usually around three in the morning, so as to have no distraction from meal breaks. He preferred to make long "takes" of complete movements or sections, going right back to the beginning if something displeased him. We now have a legacy of over 130 CDs by him in the current lists to testify to the power of his intellect and command of artistry.

When he returned to London in 1989 after a 12-year absence, it was noted that he played from music in front of him illuminated by a single lamp he operated himself. Three years later, he took space in the printed programme to explain his reasons, dismissing memory playing as "a childish and vain feat", and saying of the absence of platform lighting, "We are living in an age of voyeurs and nothing is more fatal for music."

He enjoyed chamber-music playing as a pianist with the Borodin Quartet and others, and accompanied distinguished singers including Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, as well as his own wife, Nina Dorliak, a professor at the Moscow Conservatoire.

Noel Goodwin

Sviatoslav Teofilovich Richter, pianist: born Zhitomir, Ukraine 20 March 1915; married 1946 Nina Dorliak; died Moscow 1 August 1997.

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