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Sviatoslav Richter: The Pianist Who Made The Earth Move

Sviatoslav Richter, born 100 years ago in Ukraine, is considered one of the world's greatest pianists. Sony Music Photo Archives hide caption

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Sony Music Photo Archives

It was in Carnegie Hall and Sviatoslav Richter was playing the piano. The floor rumbled and the walls shook. It happened during the tumultuous passage in double octaves that opens the fugato in Liszt's Sonata in B minor. That the supernatural force I thought I experienced actually had a mundane subterranean source — the BMT's passage along the tracks underneath Carnegie — mattered not at all.

I had fallen in love with the pianist five years earlier when I was 16. I knew he could make the earth move.

Richter, who was born 100 years ago on March 20, 1915, was the greatest pianist I ever heard. I attended 13 of his recitals during his American tours in 1960, 1965 and 1970. Although he never returned to the United States and though I never had the chance to hear him perform again, he remains the pianist I love most dearly.

Richter possessed a technique that conquered almost every obstacle, a sound that commanded the colors of the rainbow and an intellect and imagination that permitted an authoritative grasp of possibly the largest repertory in pianistic history. Yet unlike his great Russian colleague and almost exact contemporary, Emil Gilels, Richter never set out to become a pianist. He was born in Zhytomyr in Northwestern Ukraine to a family German in origin. He didn't attend a conservatory as a youngster, but received enough training from his father, a pianist and organist, to become able to teach himself after his father was murdered in one of Stalin's purges.

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Richter's great love as a young man was opera, and his remarkable sight reading skills permitted him to play operatic scores he had never seen before. He was thus able to secure a job at the Odessa Opera as a vocal coach. But by 1937, his hopes of becoming a conductor had been dashed for political reasons. On the suggestion of a friend, he left for Moscow to see if Heinrich Neuhaus, the teacher of Gilels and several other famed pianists, would accept him as a student. Neuhaus reluctantly agreed to hear him, though the young man had no formal training and at 22 a career as a pianist seemed out of the question. Nevertheless, what Neuhaus heard astonished him and he took Richter on as a pupil at the Moscow Conservatory.

Richter "treated each composition like a vast landscape," Neuhaus recalled, "which he surveyed from great height with the vision of an eagle, taking in the whole and all the details at the same time. He played like no one I had ever heard, and there was nothing I could teach him."

Over the next 20 years, Richter acquired a reputation as a pianist who — in Russia, at least — was rivaled only by Gilels. But because of Richter's German origins, the death of his father at the hands of the secret police and his friendship with such artists as Boris Pasternak — a writer whose novel Dr. Zhivago made him a "non-person" in the Soviet Union — the pianist himself was politically suspect and not permitted to travel to the West until 1960, several years after appearances by Gilels and other Soviet musicians.

From the beginning, however, Richter was a sensation. Word of his prowess had been spread by several remarkable, if primitive-sounding, Soviet-made records. When five recitals, each with a completely different program, were announced for Carnegie Hall during 11 days in late October, they sold out in a few hours. (All five recitals can be heard in Sony's forthcoming 18-CD set Sviatoslav Richter: The Complete Live and Studio Recordings from RCA and Columbia.)

Richter's first Carnegie program featured five Beethoven sonatas. The first four sonatas were infrequently performed, yet Richter made those of us in the audience listen with bated breath. Not only was he able to make unfamiliar pieces sound like masterworks, he could make overplayed music sound completely new. The concert concluded with a performance of the "Appassionata" that transformed the familiar favorite into a terrifying utterance. No one who was in the hall that evening would ever forget the way the finale's coda exploded. The pianist had turned a concert into Judgment Day.

Sviatoslav Richter's hands, photographed in 1961. Erich Auerbach/Getty Images hide caption

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Erich Auerbach/Getty Images

Sviatoslav Richter's hands, photographed in 1961.

Erich Auerbach/Getty Images

"That performance, as well as the studio version Richter recorded shortly thereafter, raised the bar for all of us," pianist Malcolm Frager told me in 1979. "No one was able to play the 'Appassionata' in public without worrying that the audience might have the sound of Richter's performance in their ears."

I was lucky enough to hear Richter play many of the keyboard works that mean the most to me. There was his Liszt Sonata, which was so powerful because Richter's huge hands — easily spanning a twelfth — could play the composer's daunting double octaves without the physical strain that betrayed other pianists. His Debussy and Ravel were unforgettable because those enormous hands, with their thickly padded fingers, gave him the physical capacity to create exquisite textures; because he knew secrets about pedaling that were his and his alone; and because his extraordinary imagination could seize upon the essences of those two composers and translate them into shimmering beauty.

Richter played the late sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert in a manner that had the force of prophesy. And his interpretations of Russian music beggared description. He single-handedly rescued the original piano version of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition from tarted-up arrangements, such as that of Vladimir Horowitz, by revealing colors in the composer's unvarnished original rivaling those in the gaudy Ravel orchestration. Richter's performances of late sonatas by Prokofiev and Scriabin secured their place as the most important collections of piano sonatas since those by Beethoven and Schubert.

I admired the man as well as the musician. He never rested upon his laurels, and his repertoire, instead of contracting, continued to expand as he grew older. A few major pianists might have been courageous enough to program an obscure Schumann work or a piece of abstract modernism as difficult as the Webern Variations. But what can one say about a pianistic Don Quixote whose all-Schumann programs sometimes consisted almost entirely of rarely heard works such as the Four Fugues, the Blumenstück and the Nachtstücke? Or whose recitals of 20th-century music often contained little-known works by Hindemith, Szymanowski, Bartók and Shostakovich?

Richter also taught me something about limitations — that admiration, for example, need not become idolatry. My favorite piano concertos are those by Mozart; my favorite solo pieces, those by Chopin. Those happened to be among Richter's favorites, too. But they were also the two major areas of the repertory in which he was least successful. Large hands such as his can cause problems when playing Mozart and Chopin, whose music calls for intricacy and delicacy better suited to smaller, slimmer hands. Besides, one needs a touch of innocence for Mozart and an ability to communicate emotional directness for Chopin. Richter never possessed those qualities. He was both too imaginative and too subtle to be either simple or direct.

And I also learned from Richter a lesson in acceptance. He was in declining health for about the last 15 years of his life, and I dreaded the day when his death would be announced. When it arrived on August 1, 1997 in Moscow, I finally had to acknowledge that all things, even those I love most, come to an inevitable end — even the life of the musician who was mighty enough to shake Carnegie Hall down to its foundation.

Steve Wigler is the American correspondent for International Piano magazine.

Correction March 20, 2015

In an earlier version of this story, a photo caption said that Sviatoslav Richter was born in Russia. In fact, he was born in Ukraine.