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My Top 10 Favourite Recordings of Sviatoslav Richter

Updated: Apr 30, 2020

“If you liked what you heard in my recital… just wait until you hear Richter“ - Emil Gilels

In the professional realms, an artist can receive no greater compliment than the admiration of his/her peers. The quote listed above was uttered by one of the great exponents of Russian pianism in the 20th century, Emil Gilels, at the end of his Carnegie Hall debut (after multiple encores). 

Both Gilels and Richter had studied with Heinrich Neuhaus, arguably the greatest teacher of the 20th century at the Moscow Conservatory.  Of Richter, Neuhaus noted “he was the genius student for which I had waited for all of my life”. However by the end of his studies Neuhaus also lamented that he had in fact taught Richter “very little”. 

A genius sight reader, Richter likely had the largest repertoire of any pianist in the last hundred years. He himself counted 80 full length recital programs and over 40 concertos. To put this into context for those of you preparing ARCT exams, this would be roughly equivalent to a tally well in excess of 200 different ARCT programs - and that does not include all the chamber music and collaborative work that he did.  

He was also one of the most sought after collaborative pianists of his day; working with the likes of Dietrich Fischer Dieskau (the famed German Baritone), David Oisterach (the greatest of the Russian violinists) and Mstislav Rostropovich (the greatest of the Russian cellists).  

Among his more Olympian feats was to learn, memorize and perform the second book of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier within a month!

Richter’s  playing was magnificent in every sense.  Armed with a technique unmatched by anyone, Richter was also one of the most conceptually probing artists of our time.   An imposing figure at the piano, his dramatis personae was capable of the most exquisite intimacies of color, and he brought a sense of architecture to his performances that gained the admiration of the likes of Glenn Gould; who noted “Richter is one of the most powerful communicators the world of music has produced in our time"

When we talk of the great pianists we always refer to the special nuances and qualities of their “sound”.  Few have ever been able to emit from the piano the orchestral effects that Richter achieved. There are accounts which you can read of various conductors who collaborated with Richter on concerti, in which they had to do double takes in the direction of the soloist during performance because of the incredible thunder, wealth and fullness of sound which was competing with their orchestra!

His repertoire was anchored on one hand by the complete suites of Handel, and the entire WTC of Bach, while on the other with the complete works of Scriabin and Prokofiev (not to mention pretty much everything in between). In regards to the latter, Prokofiev having heard Richters performance of his epic seventh sonata (among the great masterworks of the 20th century which Richter had learned and performed in 2 weeks), subsequently dedicated his eighth and ninth sonatas to the performer.

A devoted student of the repertory, Richter was continuously learning new repertoire up until his final days.

And so let's have a look at some of Richters greatest recordings. It should be noted that Richter felt less comfortable in the recording studio then he did within the recital hall.  Towards the end of his career he especially sought out very small venues in which to perform as he found the experience much more intimate for the performer and audience alike. Thus I have tried to incorporate a good number of live performances below.

Chopin - Etude opus 10/12

Known as the Revolutionary Etude, this work is one of 10 Etudes which Chopin dedicated to Liszt.  It was written to commemorate the 1831 Russian invasion of Warsaw. It is a relentless Moto Perpetuo and I’m sure you will agree that Richter brings endless energy and fiery temperament to the table here.

Handel - Suite in d-minor

Richter recorded all 25 harpsichord suites composed by Handel.  The opening Toccata and Fugue soon give way to stylized Baroque dances; each of which is beautifully sculpted by the master.

Note: The page turner of this concert is the famous pianist Andrei Gavrilov, who was so inspired by Richters insight into these masterworks that he promptly recorded the whole set himself.

Mendelssohn - Variations Sérieuses

A masterwork of the romantic era, this variation set was premiered by the composers’ sister Fanny – an outstanding pianist of the mid 1800’s.  Richter takes the anguished theme and sculpts an incredible delivery. Something that could always be appreciated about Richter was the incredible sense of architecture which he had conceived for a given work - and it is on full display here!  Fasten your seatbelt for the closing presto!

Chopin - Scherzo #2

One of the great war horses of the romantic era, Richter summons all of his pedantry, power, sarcasm and grace to this conception. His ability to step things into high gear throughout the coda especially is nothing short of exhilarating!

Bach - Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp minor WTC 1

This is likely the most emotionally, intellectually and spiritually demanding Prelude and Fugue in the Well Tempered Clavier. The fugue is set in five voices.  Richter’s construction of it has a wonderful organ like roundedness of tone, and the textural intertwining is nothing short of communal.

Ravel - Jeux D'eau

You will certainly come across performances of this work which are freer, and more will-o’-the-wisp in terms of its ebb and flow. However Richter dots every “I” and crosses every “T” of the score here and brings a cohesive approach to structure in which some highly nuanced and fresh colourings emerge.  His pedalings throughout the performance are a wonder to behold!

Prokofiev -  Sonata 7

Prokofiev wrote his 7th piano sonata to commemorate the battle of Stalingrad during World War II. It is one of the masterworks of the 20th century sonata repertoire, and Richter learned and performed it in two weeks.  Full of militarism, chaos and general blood and guts, Richter brings a ferocity to the outer movements which is difficult to put into words. 

Rachmaninoff - Concerto 2

Not much you can say about this work except it is one of the great performances of one of the truly great piano concertos. It is just about his heart on sleeve as you can get.  Be sure to listen to Rachmaninoff's signature written into the rhythm at the close of the final movement! Note: having a tissue box nearby is a requisite when beholding what Richter does with the slow movement.

Brahms - Piano Concerto #2

Richter was highly regarded for his insights into the piano sonatas and concertos of Brahms.  This is my favourite piano concerto of all time. It combines the very best elements of structure, counterpoint, heart on sleeve romanticism and equality betwixt the soloist and orchestra. The slow movement of this concerto is, next to the Hammerklavier, the greatest slow movement ever written IMHO.   

Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition

Recorded live from Sofia Bulgaria, Richter’s recording of this is truly Herculean! One of the greatest and most demanding works in the repertoire, it requires stamina, sonority in abundance, and technique to burn.   It doesn’t get more frantic then Richters delivery of Limoges, or diabolical than what he evokes from Baba Yaga. Richter’s recording of this master work is considered the all-time best of this particular work and a MUST LISTEN to those of you who are new to it. 

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