Sviatoslav Richter: Legendary Classical Pianist

Sviatoslav Richter: Legendary Classical Pianist

Written by Ernst Müller

Copper has an exchange program with AAA (Analogue Audio Association) magazine of Switzerland (and other publications), where we share articles, including this one.

The Swiss author Ernst Müller is a profound connoisseur of the classical music scene, with a large analog record collection. In issue 203 Copper presented his review of the Sibelius symphonies on LP. This article also discusses vinyl recordings. These can be found on the second-hand market, and they are also available as CDs. Ernst Müller points out important live recordings toward the end of the article.

It is hard to imagine an artist in classical music who has released more recordings on the market than Sviatoslav Richter (1915 – 1997). The majority of these are live recordings – some of them have been released as bootlegs. But official labels such as DGG, EMI and Philips have also released many concert recordings.

Richter felt less comfortable in the studio than in front of an audience. The life of this pianist was always shrouded in legend – and such legends tend to obscure the view of an artist's personality, rather than making it possible. For example, the title of Bruno Monsaingeon's excellent film about him is Richter: the Enigma. The German title, Der Unbeugsame, can be translated as “The Unbending One.” The French title, L'Insoumis (roughly translated as “The Undefeated” or “The Unvanquished”) goes in the same direction, although there is still something rebellious in this designation.

This article aims to provide record collectors with essential information on Richter's personality and playing, and to make a few recommendations on his boundless discography, with the emphasis on releases on vinyl.


An Apolitical Man – the First 45 Years of His Life in the Soviet Union

When Richter gave his first recital in 1934, one day before his 19th birthday, he had not yet received any training as a pianist. This remained the case until 1937, when he joined the famous Heinrich Neuhaus at the Moscow Conservatory. He had previously also worked as a répétiteur at the opera in Odessa. Neuhaus described Richter as a genius from the very beginning. A genius, however, who was twice expelled from the conservatory because Richter refused to attend the obligatory political courses. This was not out of political conviction, but because, as an apolitical person, he did not see the point. Neuhaus ensured that Richter was readmitted both times.

Years later, at the first Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958, Richter did not give his vote as a jury member to a Soviet pianist as prescribed, but instead awarded the young American Van Cliburn the highest possible number of points, which also marked the end of his work as a jury member in the Soviet Union. In an interview in 1986, Richter said of his teacher Neuhaus that he had freed his hands and relieved him of his harsh sound. Neuhaus was primarily concerned with the formation of sound, which he felt had to become more relaxed in the young pianist.

Richter remained on friendly terms with Neuhaus until his death. It was also Neuhaus who introduced Richter to Prokofiev as early as 1937. It was Richter who premiered Prokofiev’s Piano Sonatas Nos. 6, 7 and 9.



A picture from 1945: the back of the record sleeve of Japanese Victor VIC-3055.


Sviatoslav Richter was born in March 1915 in Schitomir (Ukraine). His father had previously lived in Vienna for 20 years, and was a trained pianist and from 1916 an organist in Odessa, where his son spent his youth and found his first recognition as a pianist. From the late 1930s, the young Richter enjoyed success throughout the Soviet Union. Even after the outbreak of war, he was far away from his parental home.

And then came a tragic event that Richter was never to overcome: Richter's father became in danger in Odessa because of his German name and his years in Vienna. There were plans to leave the city, but Richter's mother had entered into a relationship with another man and refused to leave her home. Richter's father was arrested in 1941, before the German invasion, as an alleged spy and shot. His son knew nothing about it for a long time. His mother later left for Germany with her friend, and the pianist didn’t see his mother again until 1960. In addition, the mother married the man, who took the name Richter and pretended to be the brother of the husband who had been shot. The pianist detested his stepfather, whom he described as a notorious gossip.

Sviatoslav Richter the man always shied away from the camera. Moreover, analysis (of musical texts, for example) was not his thing. He said of himself that he detested two things: analysis and power. He could refuse telephone calls, hated airplanes, and loved to walk enormous distances. When he was more than 70 years old, he spent six months traveling by car from Moscow to Japan and back. Along the way, he gave concerts in countless small Siberian towns. It is said that he would have preferred to make the whole journey on foot.



Volume 2 of the Carnegie Hall concerts in an American pressing.


Carnegie Hall: Richter Creates a Sensation in the West

Richter remained almost unknown in the West until 1960. When Soviet pianist Emil Gilels toured the US before then and received good reviews, he remarked that people should wait until Richter would come. But it was only when record label Deutsche Grammophon released two records in the West, which had been recorded in Warsaw in 1958, that the Richter legend began to form. And when the Soviet bureaucracy gave permission for a tour of the US in the fall of 1960, Richter's international reputation began. Richter would never emigrate in his lifetime. In the last 35 years of his life, however, he was no longer restricted from giving concerts in the West.

Five concerts in Carnegie Hall in October 1960 contributed greatly to the creation of his reputation. He was celebrated as a virtuoso without equal, as one of the world's greatest pianists. Richter himself saw it differently: he felt bad about it and had preferred not to give these concerts at all. He demanded that the microphones be hidden (which explains the poor sound of the recordings). Columbia Records had paid $60,000 for the rights to release the recordings, to the Soviet authorities – Richter himself saw nothing of this money.

The concerts were a phenomenal success with audiences and critics, but Richter considered this to be undeserved, as he believed he had played badly. Richter demanded that the recordings not be released. However, at this time two double albums of the Carnegie recitals had already been released. And a third album was released shortly after. However, there were no reissues until 2006. This is why the American, English and German pressings of the concerts were for a long time sought-after records.

Richter made a few studio recordings in the following decades of his life, but these pale compared to the huge number of unauthorized releases of his concert recordings. Richter was rarely satisfied with his playing. Towards the end of his life, he was plagued by illness and avoided performing. Even before then, he preferred to avoid festival venues and metropolitan cities and play in smaller towns. Just north of the French city of Tours, he had already found his own venue for an annual concert in 1963 in a barn, the "Grange de Meslay." As he grew older, Richter withdrew from the limelight. He only played with a score in a dark room. The piano was lit only by a reading lamp.

Richter was not a complacent pianist, as can be seen in by Bruno Monsaingeon’s excellent film Richter: The Enigma. At the very end – the last words of the film – Richter says succinctly in Russian: "I don't like myself. That's it."

Richter continued to give concerts until the spring of 1995. He died in Moscow on August 1, 1997.

Richter's Playing

Although Richter was a pianist whose playing primarily made an impression through his physical abilities, he was capable of an enormous wealth of color in his sound. He made full use of the dynamic spectrum between the most delicate pianissimo and the most fiery, impetuous fortissimo. His enormous manual dexterity allowed him a powerful grip, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, which was, however, so controlled that a volume increase was possible even in fortissimo in important passages, which made his playing seem particularly intense. Richter's playing has been accused, not entirely without justification, of being aggressive. He was a musician who was guided more by his instinct than by analysis. His playing could be loud and powerful, but also sparklingly elegant. His physicality allowed him to take big risks at concerts, which could lead to astonishing interpretations that made the occasional wrong note seem irrelevant.

Richter's Schubert interpretations, however, drew criticism. His Schubert could be very slow, and his tone seemed to some to be too "frozen" and static. His Schubert playing was probably more spiritual than technical. In any case, the pianist avoided any beauty of sound in Schubert.

Arthur Rubinstein said of his Russian colleague: "Richter is an outstanding musician of great intelligence. He plays the piano and the piano answers. He sings with his piano."

The recordings of his last 10 to 15 years show a changed Richter. His playing was less physical. Richter's wife, the singer Nina Dorliak, to whom he had been married since 1945, said of this before and after of his playing: "He had a fiery temperament and tended to play forte. Later he began to pay attention to the sound." She said that he had found a kind of "bel canto." Richter played most of his concerts on Yamaha grand pianos.


Three Phases are Captured on Recordings

In a June 29, 2012 article about Richter's recordings in The Berkshire Review titled "Angelic Demon," Huntley Dent divides them into three phases:

– The Soviet years before 1960: the recordings of this period show a pianist of the highest nervous tension. He possessed a phenomenal technique and fearless self-confidence and created a hypnotic playing style. In terms of sound, these recordings are somewhere between poor and outright bad.

– Richter in the West (from 1960 to around 1980): during this phase, Richter developed his international concert activity mainly in the US, England, Italy, France, Japan and Russia (Moscow). His abilities appear to be completely intact. EMI, DGG, Philips and Decca were in competition when it came to releasing studio recordings – there are also well-recorded live recordings among them – which sold well. I would still describe the playing from this period as powerful, but it now sounds more beautiful and somewhat more rounded. In terms of sound, the recordings from this period are different, but much better than those from the first phase. Richter's collaboration with Benjamin Britten, which is available in recordings from the Aldeburgh Festival, also dates from this period.

– Dent calls the third phase, which begins in 1980, "twilight," a word that has the connotation of time coming to an end. Recordings from these 15 years are available on CD, primarily from a Richter box set with 51 CDs: Sviatoslav Richter – Complete Decca, Philips and DG Recordings. Unfortunately, there are not so many convincing studio recordings from Richter's last years. For the most part, the concert recordings have a very good sound. They show a different Richter, whose playing has little to do with the phenomenal power of his first two phases. His musical statements seem more internalized. Some of the tempi seem to be in slow motion. You could also put it another way: Richter's playing is no longer unique. There are some fine recordings from this period, but since they are only available on CD, I will not include them in this article.


The Repertoire

In his 1998 book Richter: Ecrits, conversations, Bruno Monsaingeon recorded very interesting conversations with Richter and published his diary notes from 1970 to 1995. The book also contains detailed statistics on all the composers and works that Richter played, and how many concerts he gave in which years in their respective continents, countries and cities. The statistics are so meticulous that they are not easy to keep track of. Viewed from a distance, they are impressive:

– Between 1937 and 1995, Richter performed around 900 different works.

– The composers he played most frequently were, in order of frequency: Chopin, Rachmaninov, Debussy, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Schumann, Bach, Brahms, Liszt, and Schubert.

– He most often played works from the Romantic repertoire, followed by works from the 20th century, then from the Classical and Baroque periods.

– Richter gave a total of 3,589 concerts in his lifetime, a good 2,000 of them in the Soviet Union and around 1,000 in Western Europe.

What did Richter not play? He was not a fan of "completeness. He "only" played 22 of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas and, strangely enough, only Nos. 1 and 3 of his five piano concertos. Unlike his fellow pianists, he did not play complete cycles of works: of Chopin's Etudes op. 10 and 20, he played only a handful of selected ones each. The same applies to the first book of Debussy's Préludes and Prokofiev's Visions fugitives. He performed only excerpts of Shostakovich's Preludes and Fugues. There are, however, two complete recordings of Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier.

In his later years, Richter played some of Mozart's sonatas. There are quite good recordings of these on Philips (on CD). However, the pianist confessed about his Mozart playing – self-critical as he almost always was – that he had "not yet found the key to the whole." Instead, he loved Haydn, to whom other pianists of his generation seemed to be indifferent.


The Recordings

As already mentioned, the Richter discography is seemingly boundless, and confusing. Well over 4,000 different recordings of works have been released. For decades I have collected all of Richter's recordings that I could find, and today I probably have about 95 percent of all of Richter’s sonic documents. Fortunately, there is a website that lists Richter's recordings with great accuracy and provides clarity:

On this website you can click on 52 composer names and find Richter’s recorded works with references to LP and CD editions with all catalog numbers! This is important because identical recordings can appear on a wide variety of labels without any indication of the place and date of the recording (e.g., on Melodiya, Eurodisc, Decca, EMI, Monitor, Musicart, Odyssey, Parlophone, Philips, Shinsekai, and Saga). This phenomenon is even more extreme in the case of live recordings, as bootleg pressings of Richter concerts were commonplace. And although there are often several live recordings of the same work on the market, the same recording might be available in more than one pressing on your own record shelf without you even realizing it. These pressings can sound different because the source material was often not the same.

Unfortunately, I can't give any guidelines here as to which labels have issued better recordings. It's a matter of chance, and sometimes the later editions on CD sound better, sometimes worse.

In the case of bootleg pressings, the information found on them can sometimes be wrong. An extreme example: when I bought the Discocorp IGI 309 record a good 40 years ago (the cover and label say "Schumann: Carnaval, op. 9") and put it on, I heard Schumann’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien, op. 26!

It should be critically noted that record and CD companies have indiscriminately thrown all the available Richter recordings onto the market that were recorded at some point and somewhere. Richter was not always at his best on some of these. As a result, numerous concert recordings have been released which clearly do not represent anything worthwhile.

In the following, we would like to critically point out a few recommendable recordings, with the emphasis on releases by "official" labels.



Melodiya/Eurodisc 74 807 KK, mono recordings from the 50s.


Early Recordings (All Mono)

For the recordings from the 1950s, I would like to mention three records (in later pressings) that were first released on Melodiya: Melodiya/Eurodisc 74807 brings together a recording of Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor op. 1 from February 1955 (with Kurt Sanderling and the USSR Great Radio Symphony Orchestra) and Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 1 in D flat major op. 10 with conductor Kirill Kondrashin leading the Moscow Youth Symphony Orchestra in 1952. In both concerts, the 40-year-old pianist can be heard with irresistibly gripping, even breathtaking, and crystal-clear playing.



Odyssey A 35204.


If you want to hear Richter's grandiose solo works from this period, get yourself a recording of Tchaikovsky's Piano Sonata in G major op. 37. Apart from the 1957 period sound, this is a reference recording. It is available in many record-label releases (Melodiya, Eurodisc, etc.) Melodiya/Odyssey Y 35204 has the advantage in that it also contains a breathtaking and clear interpretation of Schumann's Humoreske op. 20; however, the long sonata is crammed onto the first side of the record. The pianist's earliest recordings (Moscow 1948 and 1950) with short works by Schubert and Chopin can be found on Melodiya/Eurodisc 87 474 XAK. This record, however, shows a typical discographic negligence: the last work (Chopin's 2nd Ballade) was recorded in Bucharest in 1960, without this being noted.

One should not expect good sound from any of the three records mentioned!

The recording of Richter's concert from February 24, 1958 in Sofia (released several times on Philips) is legendary. In addition to short piano pieces by Schubert, Liszt and Chopin, Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition was the centerpiece of the concert. Today, this is still one of the most frequently cited reference recordings. However, the listening pleasure is marred by a record-breaking amount of coughing in the audience! The sound is not enjoyable either.



Here is a release of a recording of Pictures at an Exhibition from 1958 in Sofia on Columbia (ML 5600).


1958: DGG Makes Inspiring Studio Recordings in Warsaw

If you want to hear good-sounding recordings of Richter from the 1950s, you should listen to one of the three DGG records recorded in Warsaw in 1958:

Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor op.18 is a superb moment. Richter has a magnificent breadth, is powerful in his grip, and achieves an intensity like hardly any other pianist in this work. The interpretation has heroic traits but leaves the necessary space for lyrical passages. Stanislaw Wislocki conducts the brilliantly arranged Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra. The disc also contains six preludes for solo piano from op. 23 and 32 by Rachmaninov. (DGG SLPM 138 076).



DGG SLPM 138 076.



DGG SLPM 138 075.


Richter's recording of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 5 in G major op. 55 with Witold Rowicki and the Warsaw Philharmonic (DGG SLPM 138 075) is equally inspiring. Richter had already impressed the composer with his interpretation of this work in 1940. His playing here explores the entire range between lyrical passages and even black humor. Rowicki's accompaniment is convincing. The same disc also contains Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466, accompanied by Stanislaw Wislocki with the same orchestra. Richter approaches Mozart with moderate tempi. This is not a virtuoso Mozart in which the dynamic possibilities of a modern concert grand piano are demonstrated. However, his Mozart certainly points in the direction of Beethoven, and Richter plays Beethoven’s cadenzas here.

Richter's recording of Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor op. 54 also dates from 1958 and the playing is fascinating in its pianistic beauty. However, it is also an unsettling, feverish Schumann that can be heard here (again accompanied by Wislocki with the Warsaw Orchestra). The disc also contains Schumann's Introduction and Allegro appassionato in G major op. 82, a concert piece in which the performance reveals the status of an important work. The last piece on the record, Schumann's Toccata in C major op. 7 for solo piano, is also truly inspiring.



Here is an English pressing containing one half of the program from October 23, 1960 with works by Prokofiev (CBS BRG 72125).


October 1960: Carnegie Hall

Richter's first studio recording in the US was also made at the time of the Carnegie Hall concerts: RCA recorded Johannes Brahms' 2nd Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (LSC-2466). As the principal conductor Fritz Reiner was ill, Erich Leinsdorf stepped in at short notice. We hear a thoroughly energetic orchestral interpretation with electrifying piano playing. In terms of sound, this is not the best RCA recording of the time, but it is preferable to the one made nine years later for EMI with the Orchestre de Paris under Lorin Maazel, where even in the first movement, Maazel fails to create the necessary tension between soloist and orchestra.



Autograph from the collection of Roland Kupper (Basel).


In November 1960, Richter recorded Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major op. 15 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Charles Munch (RCA LSC-2544). The pianist loved this piano concerto and said that whenever he heard an orchestra play the work, he was overwhelmed by the feeling that something radiantly beautiful was happening. Richter also held Munch in high esteem. After a rehearsal, he is said to have kissed his hands in gratitude. These are certainly enough prerequisites for a great recording. In fact, this recording has often been praised. Richter's sound is brilliantly displayed, has enormous physical presence, and is rhythmically pointed. However, this also means that the performance lacks youthfulness and melodic character; it has something breathless about it.



DGG SLPM 138 848.


A similar criticism could be made of the September 1962 recording of Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Kurt Sanderling (DGG SLPM 138 848). However, this recording, which may not be everyone's cup of tea, is more convincing; despite or perhaps because of the perfection of Richter's crystal-clear metallic tone, which, with a well-accompanied Sanderling, goes through the score with power and angularity. Richter's playing is probably more appropriate to the Third concerto than the First.

Richter's recording of Franz Liszt's two piano concertos from July 1961 with the London Symphony Orchestra under Kirill Kondrashin is still a reference recording today. Richter's pianissimo is ravishing, the rapid passages are crystal-clear, and he reproduces the stormy elements in both concertos with impressive power. Everything comes across with great expression. The balance between soloist and orchestra is perfect, Kondrashin and the London Symphony Orchestra accompany full of character and tension. (Released several times on Philips; the 180-gram reissue has catalog number Philips 900-000.) The fact that these recordings sound excellent is also due to the recording team of C. Robert Fine, Wilma Cozart, Harold Lawrence, and Robert Eberenz.



DGG SLPM 138 822.


Richter's recording of Peter Tchaikovsky's 1st Piano Concerto in B flat minor op. 23 with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Herbert von Karajan from September 1962 (DGG SLPM 138 822) is also famous. But I hesitate to make a recommendation here. Is this [driven by] the playing of Sviatoslav Richter? Or is this not rather von Karajan's Tchaikovsky? Indeed, the conductor seems to determine the tempo changes and interpretation with his powerful, sound-oriented concept. Richter's playing seems tamed and not very free. Ultimately, the cover picture already seems to suggest this to me: Karajan shows where to go with his right arm raised, and Richter is allowed to look into the score from the side. Richter's recording with the Leningrad Philharmonic under Yevgeny Mravinsky from July 1958 seems much more rewarding to me personally, despite the monophonic sound (this was released on different labels). Conductor and pianist speak the same language here.

A side note: the recording of Beethoven's Triple Concerto for EMI with von Karajan and the "star soloists" Richter, Oistrakh and Rostropovich also seems to me to be far from being a first choice. Richter himself says in Monsaingeon's film that he is dissatisfied with this recording, and that Karajan and Oistrakh had formed an alliance against him and Rostropovich. The recording is famous but fails to inspire.



London 1961: DGG 618 766 (mono pressing for the French market); German catalog number: 18 766.


Richter in Works for Solo Piano…

In an unusual arrangement between DGG and EMI, the two companies alternately made recordings in 1961 and 1962 on the occasion of the pianist's tours, and these are to be recommended. Two recital discs on DGG should be mentioned first: In the summer of 1961, a program with works from three centuries was recorded while Richter's first tour of England: Haydn's Sonata in G minor, a Ballade by Chopin, three Préludes by Debussy and the 8th Sonata by Prokofiev show a pianist who possesses a differentiated touch and a brilliant technique. Richter is a completely convincing interpreter of four different composers and eras (DGG SLPM 138 766).

In the fall of 1962, sound engineer Heinz Wildhagen recorded concerts from Richter's tour of Italy for DGG (DGG SLPM 138 950). The A-side of the record is dedicated to 5 preludes and fugues from Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier. Richter plays Bach here without embellishments, straightforward but thoroughly intimate. The second side of the disc is admirably perfect in its design: Schumann's Abegg Variations, his Opus 1, sounds polished and clear. The same applies to the (somewhat cool sounding) C minor Allegretto and a Ländler by Schubert, a Prelude by Rachmaninov and three of Prokofiev's 20 Visions fugitives.



Concert recordings from the 1962 tour of Italy, live recordings from Florence, Rome and Venice (DGG SLPM 138 950). an Exemplary Interpreter of Schumann...

Richter's sporadic collaboration with the EMI label began on the occasion of his 1961 tour of England and lasted until 1980. Recordings from the first two years document Richter as an outstanding interpreter of Robert Schumann: the C major Fantasy op. 17, the Faschingsschwank aus Wien op. 26 and especially the Second Piano Sonata show Richter at the height of his career with colorful and virtuoso playing. Richter takes Schumann literally when he uses the indication "as fast as possible" in the finale of the sonata; and he is also able to perfectly shape the increase in "faster" in the coda without playing over notes. The EMI recordings of the two years have been released on two individual disks (the first with the already mentioned Fantasie and Beethoven's Tempest Sonata, the second with the other two works by Schumann).



Double album by German EMI with the aforementioned works by Schumann (EMI 1C 187-50 340/41).


Incidentally, the pianist had already proved himself to be a leading interpreter of Schumann with the recordings of the Waldszenen op. 82 and the Fantasiestücke op. 12 made in Prague in 1956 (released on Supraphon and subsequently on DGG, as well as on Heliodor).


...and What About his Schubert?

Schubert was one of Richter's specialties; he played him frequently. As a listener, I often succumb to the idea that the romantic world of Schumann is closer to Richter than that of Schubert. In fact, his Schubert playing has often been criticized – it doesn't seem to be everyone's cup of tea. Richter often played Schubert very slowly. Live recordings in particular prove that he was able to develop the first movement of the last sonata (B flat major DV 960) almost in slow motion. Richter’s Schubert has been accused of being brittle. If the listener allows himself to be drawn into his Schubertian image, something highly impressive can emerge: Richter plays the unfinished C major Sonata DV 840 in 1961 in a disjointed and cool but intense manner. This is a Schubert who moves between a glimmer of hope and frozen despair (Le Chant du Monde LDX 78295). In the same year, a record was made for EMI with Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy and a lyrical interpretation of the little A major Sonata DV 664, which has reference-quality sound. There are other records with Schubert sonatas from later years. Worth mentioning is one with the last sonata in B flat major DV 960 from 1972 and one with live recordings of the middle sonatas DV 575 and DV 625, recorded on the occasion of concerts in Tokyo in 1979.

Every music lover must check for himself whether he finds Richter's Schubert interpretations accessible.



Recordings from 1961 (EMI 1C 063-00 229).



Richter always made it clear that his playing was committed to faithfulness to the original and the "New Objectivity." Thus, passages in Richter's playing can appear to some listeners as dismissively sober, while to others they may appear as an expression of trance-like self-forgetfulness. His interpretations of Beethoven's piano sonatas in particular reveal this range between sobriety (in the slow movements) and possible intensity and purposefulness, which can be heard with finger-technical perfection (in the Allegro movements, for example). There are numerous recordings of Beethoven's sonatas by this pianist.

In addition to the already mentioned captivating interpretations of Beethoven's Sonatas Nos. 3, 7, 9, 12, 22 and 23, which are available in recordings from the 1960 Carnegie Hall concerts, I would just like to mention three more records here: In the summer of 1963, Philips recorded the Sonatas Nos. 9, 10, 11, 19 and 20 in Paris, which were released on two individual disks. Richter plays these relatively early sonatas (all were composed in the 18th century) with rhythmic freshness and makes the scores appear transparent, with little use of pedal. In terms of sound, the recordings are not exactly exhilarating for the time.

In 1977, EMI released a record with the 1st and 7th sonatas (ASD 3364). What is fascinating about these recordings with their good sound is how Richter is able to penetrate an "innocent" world in the first sonata (F minor). Such an approach also characterizes his recordings of Haydn's sonatas. Richter's concept for the 7th sonata in D major seems less uniform. He takes a streamlined, sober approach to the first movement. He approaches the finale with a dreamy undertone.



Philips SAL 3458.


Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Shostakovich

Richter's pianistic skills made him a predestined interpreter of Prokofiev. Anyone who listens to one of his recordings of piano sonatas 6 to 9 or short piano pieces will hear perfect interpretations. One critic wrote somewhat provocatively, but not without justification, that Richter is the only one who enters a philosophical dimension with Prokofiev.

Richter's recordings of works by Russian composers (Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky have already been mentioned above) are generally an excellent choice. The aforementioned DGG disc with Rachmaninov's 2nd Piano Concerto contains 6 Préludes from op. 23 and 32 by the same composer on the back (recorded in Warsaw in 1959). 13 preludes from the two cycles are also available in a recording from 1971 from Salzburg (Eurodisc-Melodiya 85744 MK or Melodiya/Angel SR-40235).

It is also always rewarding to hear Richter in his few recordings of works by Alexander Scriabin. A parenthetical remark: Vladimir Sofronitzsky (1901 – 1961), a pianist who has remained unknown in the West, is rightly regarded as the Scriabin interpreter par excellence. Richter himself also holds this opinion. Sofronitzky plays Scriabin in a freer way than Richter. Nevertheless, it is worth listening to Richter's interpretations.

The recording of six of the 24 Preludes and Fugues op. 87 by Dimitri Shostakovich – recorded by Philips in Paris in the summer of 1963 (SAL 3458, also available as a reissue) – also deserves special attention.



Debussy, live in Spoleto 1967 (Turnabout TV-S 34360).



The fact that Richter was also a serious interpreter of Ravel and Debussy is shown above all by a live recording of the complete second book of Claude Debussy's Préludes from Spoleto on July 14, 1967 (Turnabout TV-S 34360). Although the sound is poor, what is usually difficult to capture in the studio succeeds here: to conjure up the magic of this composer's music emanating from the keys. Richter usually only played individual Preludes in concerts, but not the entire collection. The already mentioned recital in Spoleto is one of the great moments of Richter's piano playing. Another Turnabout record (TV 34359) contains the works that Richter probably played in the first part of the concert: The E major Sonata by Haydn, two Novelettes by Schumann and La sérénade interrompue by Debussy document a pianist with great creative culture and fine nuances of touch. Unfortunately, the sound is rather poor. (Incidentally, the last work on this disc – Prokofiev's 7th Sonata – is a recording from Moscow from 1958, without this being noted!)


...Piano Concertos by Dvorak, Bartok, Prokofiev, Grieg, Schumann and Britten

There are four noteworthy recordings of piano concertos from the 1970s: one reference recording is that of Antonín Dvořák's concerto with Carlos Kleiber and the Bavarian State Orchestra Munich. The primary quality of the recording lies in the orchestra's interplay with Richter under Kleiber's masterful direction. Soloist and orchestra listen to each other, both are highly inspired, the lyrical passages are magnificent, and Richter has moments of genius; listen to his introduction to the third movement. The sound of this recording from June 1976 is not spectacular, but it is very coherent and beautiful. (EMI ASD 3371). According to Sviatoslav Richter, however, neither he nor the conductor felt in the best of health during this recording.



A French EMI (2C 069-02161).


Richter only rarely played individual short pieces by Béla Bartók in concert. However, his 2nd Piano Concerto is available in a studio recording from 1970 (HMV ASD 2744). He is accompanied by the Orchestre de Paris under Lorin Maazel. The piano playing here is electrifying, and phenomenal in terms of fingering technique. The pianist conveys this rhythmically very angular score without giving it too much harshness and sharpness. Richter also allows poetry to flash through this wild work in a variety of ways. It is probably one of Richter's best contributions to the music of the 20th century. Unfortunately, Maazel's accompaniment is rather matter-of-fact and remote.

On the reverse side of the disc is Prokofiev's rarely heard 5th Piano Concerto with the same conductor and the London Symphony Orchestra. Richter is able to tame the "spiky" nature of this work, which was little appreciated by the composer himself. Personally, however, I prefer the 1958 Warsaw recording with Rowicki mentioned above. It is regrettable that Richter only played the First and Fifth piano concertos of Prokofiev's piano concertos – he was well-acquainted with the composer, who also wrote sonatas for him.

In November 1974 Richter recorded the Romantic concertos by Edward Grieg and Robert Schumann with Lovro von Matacic and the Orchestre National de l'Opéra de Monte Carlo. As in 1958 under Wislocki, Richter delivers a powerful and characterful interpretation of Schumann's concerto. Von Matacic responds well to Richter's interpretation. The performance of Grieg's concerto seems less convincing to me. In my opinion, Richter is excessively romantic here, especially in the outer movements, and his playing also lacks freshness.

Richter had a special affinity with the English composer Benjamin Britten. He performed several times at Britten’s festival in Aldeburgh. There are recordings (mostly only on CD) of four-hand piano music with Britten and Richter. There is a recording of Britten's Piano Concerto op. 13 on Decca (SXL 6512) with the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by the composer. This is undoubtedly the reference recording of the work. Nevertheless, it does not meet with general interest, as it is not an accessible work. Britten wrote better ones, such as the Violin Concerto, which can be found on the other side of the Decca record.


Other Recordings From the 1970s...

Richter made an exception to his habit of not playing complete cycles of works with the 48 Preludes and Fugues (from The Well-Tempered Clavier) by Johann Sebastian Bach. His recording made in Salzburg (first book July 1970, second book 1972/73) may be "wrong" for ears accustomed to historically informed performance practice on the harpsichord, because it sounds like Richter is romanticizing. In my opinion, however, it is never incorrect from the point of view of musical logic.



The four Scherzos by Chopin, recorded in 1977, here in a pressing by Melodiya (C 10-12059-60).


Richter repeatedly played works by Frédéric Chopin in his concerts. Some examples of this can be found on recital records. One LP devoted entirely to the four Scherzos (recorded in Munich in July 1977 for Melodiya and RCA Japan) is particularly recommended (released on many labels, including Ariola 25068 MK). Despite his technical brilliance, the pianist plays with great musicality, a wealth of color, and tonal beauty.


References to Recommendable Larger CD Editions with Live Recordings


The following remarks are not for listeners who want audiophile sound. Since Richter's death, there have probably been almost as many unreleased concert recordings on CD as there were recordings made during his lifetime! Here are the most exciting ones in my opinion:

– Between 1998 and 2011, the Canadian label DOREMI released a Richter Edition in 20 volumes (30 CDs in total) with many excellent live recordings from all decades. (

– The US label TNC Recordings released 16 CDs in 2002 under the title Richter in Kiev, which are highly noteworthy in terms of interpretation (unfortunately, not sound). It is said that Richter, who performed a total of 89 times in Kiev, took more risks in concert there than in Moscow or Leningrad. You can hear that here. (

– Richter's concerts in Prague have been released several times on 15 CDs on the Praga label.

– The releases on the BBC Legends label (BBC Music), which documents the pianist's concerts in England (presumably 7 individual CDs), are significantly better in terms of sound.

– In 2016, a very expensive 27-CD album entitled Live In Moscow Conservatory 1951 – 1965 was released in Russia, which is unfortunately no longer available. (Label: Sound Archives of the Moscow Conservatory, SMC CD 0184, Limited Edition.) It contains numerous previously unreleased recordings and some great interpretations.


There is Much More to Mention

Basically, the attempt to present Sviatoslav Richter in a complete overview is an absurdity. There are too many recordings and the pianist's personality is too diverse. Much has gone unmentioned in this article. For example, it should be noted in passing that Richter devoted himself to chamber music more and more frequently as he grew older. Most readers will be familiar with the recordings of Beethoven's cello sonatas with Mstislav Rostropovich (Philips).

Several violin sonatas with David Oistrakh have also been released (Bartok, Brahms, Franck, Prokofiev). In addition, the recordings with the violinist Oleg Kagan (Mozart), who unfortunately died too early, are worthy of note. There are also good recordings with the Borodin Quartet on the market. It should not be forgotten that Richter was also occasionally active as a Lieder accompanist – for example, a recording of "Die schöne Magelone" by Brahms with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau from 1970. In addition, Richter frequently appeared in the 1950s as piano accompanist to his wife, the singer Nina Dorliak; a (complete?) edition of the recordings is only available on 3 CDs on the Cascavelle label.

The list could be extended. But that would go even further beyond the already overstretched scope of this article.

If it has become clear in this article what the typical "Richter virtues" are and in which recordings they are most likely to be found, the length of this article makes sense.


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Щербинин Юрий.

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