In Beethoven, is it Gilels or Richter?

In Beethoven, is it Gilels or Richter?


norman lebrecht

July 02, 2020

Welcome to the 91st work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Piano sonata no 27, opus 90 (1814)

Beethoven’s assistant Anton Schindler claimed that he meant to entitle the two short movements of this sonata ‘a contest between head and heart’ and ‘conversation with the beloved’. Many think Schindler forged an entry in Beethoven’s notebooks to this effect. Whatever the case, the romantic inscriptions never appeared in print and have nothing to do with the pure music of this short sonata, his first for five years and a final stepping-stone before he reaches the summits of the genre with the Hammerklavier and the opp 109-111.

In terms of food for thought and playing philosophy, the sonata has little to offer – until it comes into the hands of two pianists in the former Soviet Union and affords a study in contrasts that is exceptional, immersive and extraordinarily revealing of two giants and their times.

Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997) grew up in the Black Sea port of Odessa and hung out in his teens at the opera house, accompanying singers and dancers. He never finished school but his memory was so adhesive that he knew the complete stage works of Rimsky Korsakov and was able to advise Valery Gergiev when he restored them at the Mariinsky in the 1990s. He moved to Moscow in 1937 after his parents split up – his father was later shot as a German spy, a betrayal he blamed on his mother – and received formal lessons from the Scriabin disciple Heinrich Neuhaus, who also studied with Rachmaninov’s teacher Nikolai Zverev and was the repository of the Russian tradition of piano playing, whether Mozart and Beethoven or Glinka and Tchaikovsky.

Richter was launched as a comet on the concert circuit at exactly the time Emil Gilels returned from Brussels with the Queen Elisabeth prize, a massive Soviet propaganda coup. Gilels (1916-1985) grew up in an Odessa Jewish family, graduated smoothly through the system and entered the Neuhaus class in Moscow in 1932. His violinist sister Elizabeth, was another Brussels prize-winner. He was by nature quiet, undemonstrative, non-combustible. Gilels formed a trio with his sister and her husband, the violinist Leonid Kogan. Richter lived with (they never married) the soprano Nina Dorliak; he was generally assumed to be gay.

Richter and Gilels were natural rivals and were crudely played off against one another by the Soviet authorities. After Richter gave the world premiere of Sergei Prokofiev’s 7th sonata, Gilels was awarded the 8th. Gilels was among the first artists to be allowed out into the free world after Stalin died. Richter was held back punitively for several years by the mistrustful authorities. At the first Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow, Gilels served as piano chairman and went in trepidation to the party chief Nikita Khrushchev asking if it was permissible to declare an American, Van Cliburn, as the winner. Richter, also on the jury, gave zero to most other candidates and top marks to Cliburn.

When Richter was finally given a passport, he would give his KGB minders the slip and go missing. The British impresario Victor Hochhauser spent hours searching gay bars in Paris, only to hear the unmistakable Richter touch through an open window of an apartment block at two in the morning: Richter was playing four-hand with the American Julius Katchen, whom he had just met. When the Soviet culture minister Furtseva ordered him to condemn the cellist Rostropovich for sheltering the outcast novelist Solzhenitsyn in his tiny dacha, Richter replied: ‘You’re absolutely right. It’s too small. Solzhenitsyn should come and stay with me, I have a bigger place.’

Gilels lived in terror of of the KGB (his brother-in-law Kogan was an alleged informer). ‘They are killing me,’ he told the Israeli conductor Uri Segal. ‘Look, my hands are shaking. How do they want me to play a concert now?’ Yet he was capable of great personal courage, continuing to visit the ousted Khrushchev who was living in social isolation after the Brezhnev regime declared him a non-person.

The stubbornness that both men displayed was a product of their individual integrity. Both had a highly personal approach to the music they played, an ever-evolving interpretation that came from deep within and somehow projected a reflection of that immediate moment: it could never sound the same again. Richter recorded haphazardly, when it pleased him, cancelling more often than not. Gilels allowed the Soviet bureaucracy to lock him into long-running record contracts, but each of his recordings was unusual and his failure (by three missing sonatas) to complete a Beethoven cycle for Deutsche Grammophon can perhaps be seen as a silent protest against the system that so oppressed him.


Both artists regarded Beethoven as the fulcrum of their repertoire. Richter would pair Beethoven sometimes with the serialist Webern; Gilels was more likely to balance a Beethoven sonata against one of Prokofiev’s. Both used the short 27th sonata as a recital opener. Both recorded it twice.

Richter, in January 1951, overcomes grotty Moscow studio sound and a rattly piano with a breadth of expression that sounds like freedom itself. Gilels, in an April 1957 London concert, is brutal and abrasive in the opening statements, his initial resentment developing into a wonderfully consolatory, wholly unexpected conclusion.

In his DG recording 17 years later, he focusses on producing exquisite sound in ideal working conditions. Less confrontational than before, this amounts to a reference performance, one for future generations to be measured against. Richter, recording on Decca at an unknown date, is at his most introspective. ‘I play for myself and the composer,’ he once said, and that’s exactly what you hear in this thoughtful, athletic, elusive recital.

That two artists, so different in every aspect of their being, should have flourished in such diversity under an all-controlling authoritarian regime is a testament to human resilience and to the infinite capacity of great artists to find a way of slipping through cracks in a brick wall. I cannot choose between Gilels and Richter in Beethoven. I need both to retain hope and faith in a better future.




  • Shalom Rackovsky says:

    Perhaps the two greatest pianists within living memory. I had the privilege of hearing them both live- Richter several times, Gilels once. In my opinion Richter was on a completely different plane, but your mileage may differ, and my ranking should be of no importance to anyone else.

    My most vivid of many memories is of Richter playing the Pavane pour une infante defunte in Carnegie Hall. Every line was completely illuminated, and the notes seemed suspended in the air of the hall, at different, appropriate levels. It was the greatest single piano perforrmance I’ve ever heard. I don’t think anyone in Carnegie breathed for the duration of the piece.

  • Eyal Braun says:

    Surely two of the very greatest pianists of the 20th century. Impossible to say who is the greater (and no need to…)

    There are five sonatas missing from Gilels complete set (op.21. op.141, op.54, op.78. op.111)- not three.

    Among other great recordings of the op.90 sonata- I think Kempff is in his very best here- and must be heard alongside the two Russian masters.

  • Bloom says:

    Richter would be my first choice in Schubert. And the feline, empathic Gilels can render the humanity of Beethoven’s music very well and can reveal realms of secret tenderness and delicacy.

  • Novagerio says:

    Check also Wilhelm Kempff’s rendition, it’s on YouTube. The old veteran’s delicate simplicity and poetic touch is from another world.

  • Hilary says:

    2nd movement is one of Beethoven’s best melodies (he wasn’t a great tunesmith on the whole) , almost on par Mendelssohn.

    • Max Raimi says:

      Beethoven was perfectly capable of writing as beautiful a melody as Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, or Gershwin. A few examples off the top of my head: The 3/4 interlude in the slow movement of the Ninth, the great cello melody in the slow movement of Op. 59 # 1, the subsidiary theme in the first movement of Op. 132. But the thing about a great tune is that it has a beginning, a middle, and a very satisfying end–and then you are done, all within perhaps a half minute of elapsed time at the most. The stories Beethoven wished to tell were on far too grand a scale to often utilize what is essentially an aphorism. His conflicts were not designed to be resolved within a eight or sixteen bar structure.

    • Jim says:

      I suggest you contemplate the differences between Jingle, Tune, and Melody.

    • Frederic says:

      Sorry but that’s Bernstein hogwash that’s repeated over and over again, especially in the States. Of course Beethoven was a great “tunesmith”, his great melodies are part of our every day lives and will live on much longer than Bernstein’s melodies or opinions.

  • Mark Ringer says:

    Solomon’s recording is also superb.

  • debuschubertussy says:

    I remember working on this one, and I always dreaded *that* one passage in the LH with the ascending 10ths (anyone who has played this sonata knows exactly what I’m talking about).

    • christopher storey says:

      I know exactly what you mean, although it never caused me too much of a problem because I have large hands . It gave this movement a unique sound, in some ways reminiscent of a harp accompaniment, and i remember loving it from the very first time I heard it

  • David K. Nelson says:

    When in (as I recall) Chicago for a recording with the CSO and being treated like royalty, Gilels said “wait until you hear Richter.” Natural rivals, perhaps, but not enemies it would seem.

    • Peter San Diego says:

      He also praised Lazar Berman, as yet unknown in the West: “he plays Feux follets as if it were nothing!”

  • A lovely article, Norman. I agree with everything you say. Two utterly wonderful pianists, my library is crammed with their recordings. My only observation is that the extraordinary sound that Gilels generated isn’t captured in recordings as I remembered it. The subtlety of sound, colours was breathtaking. Richter’s different sound world fares better in recordings.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Thank you, Trevor. It varies. Some of the early Richters have horrible sound. Gilels was lucky to work with DG but sometimes they over-smoothed his sound.

  • christopher storey says:

    I loved Gilels , who for me was the greatest pianist of his generation. Richter, on the other hand , left me cold … almost literally, because for me his playing was icy, unemotional to the point of being devoid of feeling. My loss no doubt

  • Neil Brandon says:

    I revere Richter, but Beethoven in general does not show him at his best. Rubenstein tells a great story in his autobiography of dancing while drinking copious amounts of vodka (both of them calling in the hotel physician the next day) to demonstrate how wrong Richter was in his choice of tempi. The Bruno Monsaingeon documentary is compelling for any of his admirers to watch

    • Shalom Rackovsky says:

      If I remember correctly, Rubinstein also tells about hearing Richter for the first time. “It was perfectly ordinary. Then I discovered I was crying.”

  • Stephan Bultmann says:

    Let’s find out myself about Richard Goode

  • Greg Bottini says:

    It’s Gilels AND Richter in Beethoven!!!!
    BTW, Norman, your statement that “his (Gilels’) failure (by three missing sonatas) to complete a Beethoven cycle for Deutsche Grammophon can perhaps be seen as a silent protest against the system that so oppressed him” is patent nonsense. The reason that Gilels did not complete his cycle is that he DIED.
    We’ve gone over this before.

  • A pianist says:

    It is fascinating to see all the adulation of Richter here. It is certainly atypical of my experience in the field. I wonder if it just the advanced age of the writers of so many of the comments (and of course the posts). Richter sounds eccentric and bangy to me. Like Gould his eccentricity fit in with the mid 20th century classical scene but sounds dated now. I would take the interpretations of a whole lot of pianists over Richter, especially in lyrical Beethoven. Well give me the thumbs down if you don’t think so, I respect that.

  • Leonid Polonsky says:

    There are so many inaccuracies and actually very wrong information in this article, Mr.Lebrecht!
    This is not a good journalism in my opinion.