I’ve spoken of Richter’s it-just-is approach on a couple occasions. There’s something right, even righteous, about his playing. When you get under its spell, like that of all the great interpreters and Prophets, it seems as if there could be no other way to perceive reality. It’s pure Zen. Yes, there’s plenty to criticize, much missing, but there’s a purity to it, a completeness and utter inner logic and consistency.
In America, Richter fascinates and is respected, even loved, but his reputation has never quite equaled that of many other great pianists such as Horowitz, Rubinstein, Arrau or Gilels. In Europe however, I discovered that Richter is viewed by many as the ultimate pianist, and contrasted to America’s Horowitz, often derided as a tasteless trickster. At first I found this offensive and laughable, and I still find it misguided. Richter is over-rated there and Horowitz much under-rated. Yes, Horowitz can be offensive, and he can at times seem trivial, but don’t let yourself be deceived – there’s an underlying seriousness to everything he does, and he leaves a colossal legacy that will feed countless generations to come, much more so than Richter’s ever will.
But Richter still rates very high in the larger scheme of things. I didn’t get to know his work seriously until I was in my mid-twenties. I knew a few of his recordings and respected his work, but I had an aversion to the idea of Richter. What makes him the Prophet of the great composers? Who does he think he is!
One night I put on a CD of his and listened to it calmly, without judging. At first it seemed dry and colorless, but it began to grow on me. As I continued listening, I actually started to like it. It quietly insinuates itself into your consciousness. The CD ended and I pressed play again. And again.
The next day I sat down at the piano and worked through some repertoire guided by Richter’s direction, as it were. It felt like a purifying Zen ritual. All of the excess color, emotion, and rubato filtered out and the black-and-white form remained, pure and simple. I excised my will as much as possible to let the music speak – not the composer, but the music itself.
When I thought deeply though, I realized that there was still one filter remaining – Richter. He was teaching me, though, and was welcome to stay for the time being.
The Wise Man is square but not sharp,
honest but not not malign,
straight but not severe,
bright but not dazzling.”
~ Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Richter invites philosophical discussions about the nature of interpretation. Does the composer have the right to stand between you and his music?
When a composer creates, he taps into a force much larger than himself – Music. Music in turn belongs to Creation. The Composer doesn’t create music; he simply borrows its gestures and arranges them like Legos. He can create nothing that doesn’t already preexist in the infinite possibilities of musical creation. He uncovers preexistent truths and has no right to claim them. The created work is greater than the composer. And in a practical sense, by publishing, he releases interpretational rights and gives over his creation to interpreters. As Rachmaninoff so often proves, the composer is not necessarily the best interpreter of his works, even if he actually possesses the instrumental skills to interpret them, which is rarely the case.
The composer needs to be as modest in front of Music as the interpreter does. At this point in Music History, the interpreter and the composer are no longer co-dependent, practically or philosophically; neither serves the other. Rather, they are both served by Music. Music in return is served by purity of intent on the part of its practitioners.
Depending on the composer as a psychological go-between hinders intimacy with the music itself. Many students have so many go-betweens – their present teacher, past teachers, composers, idols, respect for tradition - that they don’t know what’s real anymore. Their communication with the listener and with themselves becomes weak. Some become so blocked by filters that they become emotionally and mentally paralyzed. A student has to learn how to throw away the image of his go-betweens and make direct contact with the music.
Filters are tools: they’ll serve you if you know how to use them, but if you don’t, they’ll either sit idly or get in your way. Using teachers or composers or idols as filters is invaluable, but first you have to be able to experience the source first-hand.
Sometimes undesired filters are imbedded so deeply inside you, like computer viruses, that you don’t even realize they’re there. Other times, you’re aware of a filter but find that you’re unable to function without it. In this case, you’ve probably digested it so much that it’s becoming part of your intuition. Give it time and don’t fight against it. Remember that intuition can be viewed as a massive compendium of filters working subconsciously.
Does Richter come closer to Music than all other pianists, as many of his admirers believe? Certainly not. You can appreciate his Art though without acknowledging what he or others believe it to be. The best way to describe it is high-definition black-and-white. There’s plenty of contrast and glimpses of imagined color, but he deliberately rejects certain beauties for the sake of purity and simplicity. The language is convincing and consistent in and of itself, and it mesmerizes.
At present, Richter is still not deeply rooted in me; it doesn’t stick to me as well as other filters. But perhaps that’s because ultimately our approaches to performing, if not interpretation, are not so fundamentally different in many respects; it’s a matter of semantics.