Richter the Enigma Review

Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 2 DVD release of Richter the Enigma

Sviatoslav Richter (1915-97) was by any standards one of the twentieth century’s greatest pianists – indeed, the programme booklet asserts that he’s the only one about whom there is a unanimous critical consensus – and he also lived through one of the most interesting and indeed terrifying periods of twentieth-century history, though for the most part he regarded it with surprising equanimity: he was well into his forties when he travelled to America for the first time, and apparently detested the place, preferring to tour obscure parts of Siberia in place of the Western concert halls that would have been his for the taking.

Part of the problem was that he refused to conform to their habit of programming years in advance (I once met a distinguished Russian violist who told me he knew exactly when, where and what he’d be performing up to three years ahead!), and the more obscure venues offered him greater scope for spontaneity. What comes across most powerfully is a portrait of a man who was only interested the music he played: everything else came a very poor second.

More to the point, he was famously – indeed, notoriously – camera and tape-recorder-shy, and the lengthy interview that shapes and structures the documentary is apparently the only really comprehensive interview he ever gave. Monsaingeon apparently wanted to avoid the standard South Bank Show approach involving multiple talking heads building up a largely uncritical, hagiographic, portrait – so with this in mind, virtually the sole interviewee is Richter himself (though there are brief contributions from his teacher Heinrich Neuhaus, the soprano Nina Dorliac and his great Canadian counterpart Glenn Gould), and so what you get is his life story from his point of view, with all the quirks and prejudices that that entails.

This is anything but a dry talking-head performance, though – Monsaingeon and his researchers have uncovered a phenomenal amount of exceptionally rare archive footage both of Richter himself and of Soviet life in general, which is pressed into service as background illustration (for instance, though it was clearly impossible to find footage of Richter at school, the documentary does include footage from what I presume was a Russian film of the period, or very close, featuring very similar material). I imagine a great deal of the Soviet footage would have been inaccessible until very recently (indeed, many of Richter’s Russian recordings have yet to be given a proper commercial release).

The bulk of the footage, unsurprisingly, is of Richter performing, and this is for the most part absolutely riveting – not just for the music, but for Richter’s magnetic presence: that great domed forehead and granite-hard expression of fiendish concentration (at times he looks unnervingly like a fiercer, stockier version of the actor Richard Wilson), with surprisingly short, stubby fingers working athletic miracles on impossibly virtuoso pieces (I wish there were more close-ups of his hands in action, but I imagine beggars can’t be choosers). There’s some hilarious footage of him playing Liszt in a Russian biopic where apart from the wig he has exactly the same dour demeanour – though private, presumably home-movie footage reveals a more playful side (though as this is mostly silent it’s tempting to read too much into this).

The documentary has been divided into two parts (the disc is a flipper, but I’m not especially bothered about that in this particular context: few people will be watching all 154 minutes in one go!). For the most part the narrative is in chronological order, with part one dealing with his life from childhood through early triumphs leading up to Stalin’s death in 1953, and part two taking a more international view. Historians will get more out of the first part, not least for the wealth of rare footage on display, while musicians will probably prefer the second, which is almost entirely focused on Richter’s musical work – not least because the quality of the material is significantly better from a technical point of view, and includes some superb performances with the likes of Benjamin Britten, David Oistrakh and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

One criticism of the documentary as a whole, though, is that it assumes its audience has prior general knowledge of both the literature of the piano and of Soviet history – this is particularly true of the second half, where there’s very little contextual information provided, and the snippets of political background (which, for all Richter’s denials, must have affected his life and work to a considerable degree) pretty much dry up after Stalin’s death: apart from the occasional date and place reference in the subtitles, there’s nothing by way of an anchor. While I appreciate Monsaingeon’s stated desire to avoid the usual biographical documentary clichés, this kind of background information is something the DVD format excels at – but only if the distributors can be bothered to take advantage of it, and they haven’t here (I’d have loved something along the lines of the animated Russian historical and cultural timeline offered by the Criterion DVD of Andrei Rublev!).

Given the heavy reliance on archive footage and recordings, many of them captured under difficult conditions (Richter’s hatred of the camera and his possibly related fondness for performing in near-darkness doesn’t, to put it mildly, help), the picture and sound quality varies widely from good (though never spectacular) to frankly pretty awful – the three-star rating for both should be considered a maximum rather than a typical mark – but under the circumstances this is both unsurprising and forgivable. Certainly, there seems to be no reason to blame the DVD for any visual or aural shortcomings – and since one would expect a TV documentary to be in 4:3 and stereo, that’s not a problem either. Most of the DVD is in Richter’s native Russian, with other contributions in French, German and English – subtitles are available in English, French and German, or can be switched off altogether. The minimalist menus offer just chapter and subtitle options set against black-and-white stills.

The only extra is a 24-page booklet, though this isn’t as generous as it sounds given that the main essay (a biography of Richter by Monsaingeon) is presented in English, French and German. Helpfully, it contains not only a complete index of the 34 chapters, but also a list of fifty-three of the musical works performed on the DVD, and both the relevant chapter and time settings to allow high-speed access. Useful though this is, though, there’s no reason why the same index couldn’t have been incorporated into the DVD menu as an alternative to the thematic index. And while I’m in this nit-picky mood, it would have been nice if the booklet had listed the other musicians involved.

For the record, the composers featured include J.S.Bach (4 pieces), Beethoven (4), Berg, Brahms (3), Chopin (5), Debussy, Glinka, Handel, Haydn (2), Liszt, Mendelssohn, Mozart (3), Prokofiev (6), Rachmaninoff (4), Ravel (2), Saint-Saëns, Schubert (3), Schumann (2), Shostakovich (2), Strauss, Tchaikovsky (4), Wagner and Wolf – but I distinctly heard other works that aren’t listed: for some bizarre reason the list compiler seems to have something against Schubert’s last piano sonata, as I distinctly heard three of its four movements at various points in the documentary (including the opening and closing music), yet it’s been entirely ignored! This kind of sloppy presentation lets down the DVD – but despite this, if you’re even remotely interested in the subject this offers an embarrassment of riches.

Michael Brooke

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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