The Film That No-one Wanted

By Joseph E. Romero

PARIS, 9 September 1998 - NVC Arts (a Warner Music Group company) has now released Bruno Monsaingeon's acclaimed biographical documentary about the pianist Sviatoslav Richter, who died of a heart attack just over a year ago at the age of 82. The Ukrainian-born pianist of German descent was one of the greatest musicians of the Soviet era, and for many, one of the 20th century's greatest pianists.

The video is available in many markets, but not the United States where classical music buffs and net users are having difficulty acquiring the video or accurate information about it. Not surprising, since classical music videos for network TV, once thought to be the Lost Horizon, have turned out to be a mere mirage as ratings drop. Still, NVC Arts marketing executive Alexandra Law in London hopes the film will eventually reach America but said that no agreement has yet been reached with a US distributor.

Moreover, according to a source at the Paris-based production company, American and British "cultural" television stations consider the film "too erudite" and have shied away from the film because of its length. The irony is that America greeted Richter with glowing headlines and a cover story in Life Magazine when he first toured the United States in 196O. However, times have changed. Has entertainment replaced culture? A single screening of the film is scheduled on 17 September 1998 at the Barbican Centre in London and on 22 January 1999 at the Walter Reade Theatre in New York.

In Europe, the Franco-German television station ARTE has taken the leap and will broadcast the two and a half hour epic by the French writer-director in two installments tonight at 21h40 and on 16 September at 22h30, on ARTE's weekly programme, Musica.

Entitled Richter, l'Insoumis (in English Richter, the Enigma) and produced by Idйale Audience/IMG Artists, the film retraces Richter's early life in the Soviet Union and the major episodes in his career from the 1940s until the early 1990s. The film is significant not only for its exclusive on-camera conversations with the iconoclast pianist, but also for Richter's compelling first person narrative - a brilliant editorial touch. The result is Richter according to Richter - before the biographers, scholars and writers of books have a go at him.

While Richter tells his story, Montsaingeon's striking montage of photographs, home videos and rare clips flash across the screen to illustrate memories and observations about family, music, composers and colleagues such as Heinrich Neuhaus, Wagner, Prokofiev or Emil Gilels. Here and there Richter's monologue is dramatically punctuated with astonishing performances from concerts in Moscow and elsewhere in the 1950s and 1960s. The effect is reviting.

Monsaingeon also interviews several members of Richter's entourage, notably his life-long companion, Nina Dorliac, who died last May. Few details of the couple's personal relationship are offered, although a marriage was celebrated posthumously six months after Richter's death.

Other footage includes eulogistic reminiscences by Glenn Gould and Artur Rubinstein. Richter's comments on his relationship with Benjamin Britten at the Aldeburgh Festival, Karajan and his collaboration with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau offer additional perspectives on the artist and his performing career. The film also confirms that there was nothing glamourous about life in the Soviet Union. Somehow, Richter seems to thrive on austerity and manages to sail deftly, albeit naively through the political vicissitudes and bleak background of the Soviet era.

If the film has a weakness, it is in the chronology of the war years and the dramatic events surrounding the death of Richter's father and his mother's remarriage. While repeated viewings might clarify Richter's impressions and experiences during that period, it is unlikely that they would ever elucidate what seems to be a rather knotty, Soviet version of Hamlet from which the scars never healed.

Like many French film makers Monsaingeon tends to stare at his subject as if prolonged, visual scrutiny could solve the Richter enigma. It cannot, of course, but instead makes only too clear that the ailing musician, at the time of filming, is on the threshold of death. This is particulary true in the closing images of the film - a moment of profound sadness - when Richter raises a hand to his brow, covers his face and withdraws from the camera whose presence, discreet as it may be, suddenly seems indecent. That having been said, the film is a distinguished achievement and a major contribution to the cultural memory of an important musician.

© 1999, author & publisher