A Richter Rehearsal at the Barbican

By Horder, Mervyn | Contemporary Review, May 1994 | Go to article overview
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A Richter Rehearsal at the Barbican


Horder, Mervyn, Contemporary Review


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.

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