Svjatoslav Rihter o Šostakoviču

Photo: Denise Restout

Photo: Denise Restout

Richter on Shostakovich:

I remember on one occasion being outside the Odessa Opera. It was dusk, and the street lights hadn’t come on. There was a man staring at me. He had white eyes, with no pupils. Suddenly I realized that it was Shostakovich. I went weak at the knees.

Although this was the first time I’d seen Shostakovich, I recognized him from a photograph in the score of his opera Katerina Izmaylova, an opera for which I felt no sympathy on account of the naturalism of its libretto. On a practical level, the score itself gave off a nauseating smell of glue, which I can still smell even when merely recalling it. I already knew Shostakovich’s symphonies and string quartets, as well as The Nose, an extraordinarily satirical opera that I saw many years later conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky, an extremely professional conductor, but one who has never inspired me, whereas his wife, the pianist Victoria Postnikova, has always struck me as a major talent on the few occasions I’ve heard her.

My real encounter with Shostakovich came much later, when he visited me at my flat to rehearse his cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry, of which Nina Dorliac and Zara Dolukhanova were preparing to give the first performance, with Shostakovich himself at the piano. It was as though Tchaikovsky had come to call on us. At about the same time — in other words, in the late forties — I sight-read a piano-duet version of his Ninth Symphony with him, at his own place. It was a real torment to play with him: he’d start at a certain tempo, but then he’d start to get faster or slower. He played the bass part, and so it was he who had responsibility for operating the pedal, but he ignored it completely. And he played fortissimo all the time, including passages of pure accompaniment, so I had to play even louder to bring out the main themes; without the use of the pedal to give it some sort of outline, I was fighting a losing battle, not least because I could hear him muttering to himself all the time: ‘Toon…toorooroo…toorooroo…tooroorooroom!’

So that ‘s how we got to know each other…it was all a bit too close for comfort. After the read-through, at which only a few close friends were present, we moved on to the cognac and toasts. It was terrible, as all the others said they didn’t want anything to drink, and Shostakovich kept refilling my glass. I emptied more than a bottle out of sheer politeness, a dreadful failing of which I’m guilty all too often. The evening dragged on until nearly midnight, when his first wife, Nina Vassilyevna, suddenly appeared from nowhere. A real beauty! He seemed terrified of her, and brusquely gestured the rest of us to leave: ‘Clear off, clear off!’ I staggered out and fell into the gutter at the side of the road, where I spent half the night, oblivious to my surroundings. When I finally came round, I set off in search of shelter at the Neuhauses’, where Neuhaus’s wife welcomed me with her usual five-o’clock pick-me-up. I spent the whole day sleeping.

As I say, Shostakovich’s first wife was beautiful, but authoritarian. She understood nothing about music. I can still see the expression on her face at the first performance of the Piano Quintet, a dazzling and fantastically successful work. She was sitting in the third row and, as the applause broke out at the end, she looked all round the hall, as if to say: ‘Are these people mad, or what?’ She was very ostentatious, but of all Shostakovich’s ‘wives’, she was undoubtedly one of the most interesting.

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