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20 March 1915-01 August 1997
"...the only one of his kind."
That was how one critic was compelled to describe Sviatoslav Richter when he first heard him play, which was also how Clara Schumann spoke of the venerable Franz Lizst. The musical world mourns the passing on August 1, 1997 of a great artist, indisputably one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century. Richter mesmerized audiences in the West with his exquisite mastery of the keyboard ever since the 1960s when he first made his appearance outside the Soviet bloc countries where he had been renowned for years. He consistently played to sold-out audiences becoming a legend in the process. With his compatriots, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and violinist David Oistrakh, he was responsible for the robust Soviet-American cultural exchange that began in the 1970s.
He was born in Zhitomir in the Ukraine to a family of German ancestry. His father was a respected pianist and piano teacher and his mother an amateur musician who was one of the early admirers of Debussy and Scriabin. He had his first music lessons with his father, becoming a master of the keyboard at the age of 8. The family later moved to Odessa where the young Sviatoslav enrolled at the Odessa Conservatory. In his teens, he was attracted to a career in conducting and at the astoundingly young age of 15 became a conductor for the Odessa Opera and the Ballet Theater, a post he held for four years. He gave his first piano recital at age 19 also in Odessa. Cognizant of his extraordinary talent, his superiors convinced him to study in Moscow with one of Russia's foremost piano teachers, Heinrich Neuhaus. He did so at the age of 22 and soon after completed his studies with the great piano teacher, who later wrote of his star student: "I must say in all honesty that there was nothing more I could teach Richter."
A statement the whole world came to understand. His brilliant technique and his power of expression combined with a repertory that encompassed all styles, from Bach to Shostakovich, gave him a charismatic stage presence - when he played, the audience literally held its breath and listened with undivided attention, their gaze transfixed on the man performing a musical miracle.. He was built like an athlete, with big but supple hands - it was said he could span a whole octave between his thumb and index finger!
He was much beloved in the USSR which awarded him the highest honors for a performing artist, as he was in all of Europe. Moments after the announcement of his death, Russian television aired tributes to him as did French television. France was his adopted country - he lived his most recent years in Paris, but would come back to his country home outside Moscow. His visit this July 5 turned out to be his last - complaining of chest pains he soon succumbed to a fatal heart attack. Burial was at Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow, the final resting place for most all of Russia's musical icons - Scriabin, Shostakovich and Prokokiev.
The great piano virtuoso may be gone, but he left behind a rich legacy of recordings which we and future generations can all happily enjoy.
Music clip: from Ludwig von Beethoven, Sonata No. 2 in G minor, Op. 5 No.2, for Cello and Piano, Mstislav Rostropovich (cello), Sviatoslav Richter (piano) (1963, 1967); Beethoven: Complete Music for Cello and Piano; Philips D206206 (442 566-2), Philips Classics Productions 1994.
NOTE: The musical world also mourns the passing of the great conductor Sir Georg Solti on September 5, 1997.