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A Richter rehearsal at the Barbican.

THE Barbican in London, Level 3, at 10.40 a.m., all but empty and in semi-darkness, so that it takes time to find the one door to the hall left unlocked for this rehearsal. From behind it pounces the white-haired security lady; has she got our names on her list of eight? She has.

Nothing much happening. Ruling the roost for the present is the Japanese from Yamaha (established 1860) who goes round with Richter as his piano technician; as there is a two-piano item to rehearse, a second Japanese is present for them to harmonize the tuning of the two instruments. The twenty-eight-strong players of the English Chamber Orchestra arrive one by one, to build that delightful crescendo of polycacophony normal on such occasions, while each player goes through the bits he finds awkward.

Just before 11 a.m., enter Mrs. Richter, Nina, dark, small, intent, a bit mousey, accompanied by the wife of her husband's London agent. They sit in the sixth row of the stalls, at about two o'clock from the piano and about level with it, the Barbican stalls being well raked. Later one sees the care with which this position is chosen so that Richter can achieve instant eye contact with her by a very slight turn of the head. Her views mean much to him -- she was herself a concert singer -- and he was quick to flash her an approving V-sign at the end of the first work played. After the first movement of the second work he used another sign of approval -- two index fingers crossed flat in front of his forehead; this is said to be taken from an Uccello painting so far unidentified.

On the dot of 11 enters -- with his conductor Christoph Eschenbach -- Sviatoslav Richter himself, aged seventy-eight, black trousers, white shirt, no tie, pullover and subfusc turquoise jacket which he at once takes off and hangs on the protruding side-knob of the Yamaha. The piano is centrally placed at the front of the stage, so that the conductor stands behind it almost out of sight of the public behind the raised lid. Richter's arrival is reassuring to those who know his reputation for unpunctuality, which stems from a disinclination ever to travel by air or train; for this series of concerts he has in fact been driven by car the whole way from Moscow.

Richter's curiosity about music is infinite; he will not be tied down to any limited repertoire of a few memorized famous works such as satisfies most star concert pianists. This means often, nowadays more often than not, playing from printed music, which in turn means having a page-turner. Note the turner who follows him in today -- a leonine Australian in his mid thirties who is also a qualified neurologist with a job at the National Hospital, Queen Square, and himself an expert pianist. Four years ago he did the same job for Richter in Paris who had little to say to him then but (after Baudelaire) surtout point de barbe -- so that he shaved it off then, and has shaved it off once again this morning. He sits on Richter's left well behind him and stands only for each page-turning operation, which is done from the top fight corner of the music with his left hand, the fingers of which not merely ensure in advance that only one page is turned at a time, but can be seen by all present to ensure this. The controlled discharge of a nerve-racking responsibility.

With the minimum of preliminaries, which include the conventional handshake for the first violin leader, the work is suddenly under way. It is J. S. Bach's Third Piano Concerto, BWV 1054, much better known to us in its original form as the E major Violin Concerto, the first movement of which belongs up in the top ten movements of the whole of Western music; even Bach himself never bettered it as a forthright affirmation that God is in his heaven, and all is right in the musician's world as long as it lasts. And even the most sensitive violinist would be hard put to it to match the disembodied coolness with which a modern grand piano played by this particular modern master delivers the message this morning. The Bach transcriptions he plays are only those made or authorised by Bach himself.

Richter plays for himself without any expression on his rather grumpy face other than the fierce glare of concentration. It is neither rage nor rapture; least of all is there any hint of that meretricious swaying to and fro, that 'consciousness of audience' which Neville Cardus identified as the mark of the second-rater. He has exceptionally large hands (which allow him to take simultaneously the notes G-B Flat-E Flat-G-B Flat in a right hand chord). His hands stay down, almost never lifted above the level of the top of the open keyboard-lid, all his physical effort is channelled down into their dancing finger-tips. His abstracted communion with the music is total, so much so that his sole comment on this run-through is a fraternal message of the same kind to the orchestra -- spoken in German to Eschenbach who conveys it to his players in English -- to 'play for yourselves, the music is yours, not mine'. Again Richter made one comment only on the second concerto played (Bach's No. 7 in G minor, BWV 1058), but this time tactics not strategy: at a certain point could the conductor hold the orchestra down a bit so as to maximize the effect of the piano's returning entry.

The performances exemplified Richter's own feelings about his playing, as expressed in 1989 to a French friend Eric Anther: 'I am not a complete idiot, but whether from weakness or laziness have no talent for thinking. I know only how to reflect: I am a mirror . . . Logic does not exist for me. I float on the waves of art and life and never really know how to distinguish what belongs to the one or the other or what is common to both. Life unfolds for me like a theatre presenting a sequence of somewhat unreal sentiments; while the things of art are real to me and go straight to my heart'.

Something of a privilege to be one of the eight people in that auditorium that morning.
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Title Annotation:Sviatoslav Richter
Author:Horder, Mervyn
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:May 1, 1994
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