From Russia with (forbidden) love

Several new collections celebrate the contributions of the late Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter.

By Benjamin Ivry

Published January 5, 1998 12:54PM (EST)

Hardly a month went by last year without another major release of
recordings by the Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, who died in 1997 at age 82. He was recently honored as part of Philips' "Great Pianists of the 20th Century" series, as well as by new releases of several live recordings, including "Richter in Leipzig, the November 28, 1963 recital" (Music and Arts/Koch), "Richter in Helsinki 25 August 1976" (Music and Arts) and his "Last Concert," of three Mozart concertos from Japan, accompanied by the Japan Shinsei Orchestra led by Rudolf Barshai (Laurel Records).

Although his recordings are now more widely available than ever before, "Slava" Richter himself still seems a mysterious, ambiguous figure of modern music. The hidden aspects of his personality and the reason why he remained a remote figure in modern musical history became clear only after his death, when friends came forward to state what had been whispered for so long: Richter suffered untold miseries in his private life and public career because he was gay, at a time when the Soviet regime considered homosexuality a punishable crime.

Noted piano teacher Paul Moor, who had known Richter for decades, wrote a memorial article for Piano & Keyboard magazine last year in which he recalled the pianist's battles with depression. In 1958, at the time of Richter's first trips to the West, he told Moor that he sometimes went months without touching a piano, but could not explain why. Moor writes: "The life which Soviet law, almost as draconian as in Nazi Germany, forced him to lead resulted in Stygian cyclic depressions that literally crippled him, pushing him perilously in the direction of suicide. The Soviet musical world regarded Slava's homosexuality as common knowledge, and had no problems with it. But those laws deprived him, all his life, of really fulfilled personal happiness."

Instead of living permanently with a male lover, Richter spent most of his adult life with soprano Nina Dorliak, who was an understanding mother figure as well as a steady friend to him. Dorliak, his elder by some 10 years, provided the stabilizing force and social front that Richter needed. When he began to travel abroad in the late 1950s, he did form romantic attachments, but even these had to be kept secret, as the freedom to travel -- even for a virtuoso such as himself -- depended on the approval of Soviet authorities. Despite the obvious political pressures, Richter did protest in his own way, refusing to perform in Moscow in the late '50s.

In 1986, Richter toured throughout Russia for more than six months, playing in remote provincial towns of Siberia, some of which had not seen a pianist for generations. One wonders just how much of this obsessive performing in interior regions was motivated by Richter's permanent sense of personal exile in his own homeland. Desperately clinging to a land that officially rejected his emotional and sexual identity was his personal alternative to the choice of exile made by other Russian gay artists like Rudolf Nureyev. Not long after the Russian tour, Richter had a total physical breakdown, necessitating a quadruple bypass that permanently weakened him.

More understanding of Richter's emotional dilemma may be gained by
referring to certain recently released archival performances, like his 1953 reading of the Tchaikovsky Concerto accompanied by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra led by Karel Ancerl (Supraphon/Qualiton).
This somber reading is one of many Tchaikovsky concertos recorded by Richter that leave the listener with the odd feeling that he never quite identified with the music of the most famously gay Russian composer. By contrast, Richter's frequent musical collaborations with Benjamin
Britten suggested an element of complicity, and a recent CD
reissue of Britten and Richter at Aldeburgh, England, playing a program of Schubert's "Grand Duo" and Mozart's "Sonata K.521 for Four Hands" (on Music and Arts 721, distributed by Koch) reveals something of this shared emotional discourse. Competing massive CD sets from BMG/Melodiya and Philips also spotlight the pianist's great achievements.

BMG/Melodiya's massive CD set of Richter's greatest achievements includes his performance of the usually derided Saint-Saens concerto No. 5, accompanied by the Moscow Youth Orchestra led by Kiril Kondrashin. Whereas the 19th century gay Frenchman's works are too often presented as kitsch and camp, Richter's reading is sober, serious and human, inarguably real music performed with sobriety and a direct approach -- by refusing to trivialize Saint-Saens, the pianist also refused to trivialize himself. Likewise, Richter's identification with the song settings by Hugo Wolf to poems by Eduard Morike, a 19th century gay German pastor, may also be linked to his own emotional conflicts. (Richter accompanied baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in 1973 concerts, released on DG, and a fuller program of other Morike/Wolf songs from the same year is on Music and Arts.)

Richter will likely remain for all time one of the definitive performers of Prokofiev (as on DG 15119, where he unforgettably plays Prokofiev's Fifth Concerto) and Schumann (on DG 47440, he likewise plays the Schumann Concerto). A multitude of other composers, from Grieg (a riveting concerto on EMI 67197) to Debussy (on Orfeo d'or 491 981), not to mention Beethoven and Scriabin, immediately leap to mind whenever Richter's name is mentioned. To these previously known solid contributions may now be added the knowledge that his achievement came in the face of severe homophobia in Soviet Russia. Some of the great recordings made by one of the century's mightiest musicians could not help but reflect that experience.

Benjamin Ivry

Benjamin Ivry is a biographer of Poulenc (Phaidon) and Rimbaud (Absolute Press/Stewart Tabori and Chang) and the author of a poetry collection, "Paradise for the Portuguese Queen" (Orchises Press). His new biography of Ravel is due out next year.

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Lgbt Music Russia Soviet Union