Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Sviatoslav Richter: At Carnegie Hall Volume II, 1960

This solo piano album captures a complete live performance from October 25, 1960, when the celebrated Ukranian pianist Sviatoslav Richter came to the United States by a special arrangement between a Soviet media company and the American Recording Artist Music Corporation. The liner notes say that Richter's tour was originally proposed as a gesture of diplomatic goodwill that would coincide with a visit by then-president Khrushchev, and it was in that way that he came to the U.S. in the same year that he first performed west of the Soviet Union. Richter played five concerts at Carnegie Hall which won wide critical acclaim and apparently made a big impression on the American classical music community. According to the liner notes, Columbia planned to release recordings of all five concerts, but I'm only aware of three concerts that were released in their entirety, the others being an all Beethoven set (Volume 1) and a performance of compositions by Beethoven and Rachmaninoff (Volume 3.) I'm given to understand that Volume 2 is the most sought after in the series. The sound on this album is clearly live and even a little bit raw in parts, but there is an energy and charm on this recording that I haven't found in many albums that were recorded in state of the art studios.

Richter's reputation apparently preceded him in the U.S. and his concerts were highly anticipated, with musicians and music lovers alike flocking to Carnegie Hall to experience his musical mastery firsthand. According to all the news articles excerpted in the liner notes, the audience reaction after the fact was even more enthusiastic. In reference to this specific performance, one critic reported hearing "a new and great Debussy." If you listen, I'm sure you'll be able to hear the magic that these critics were describing, but I also read the amazement in these reviews as reactions to how deeply this Soviet pianist shared their aesthetic preferences. I can't imagine that the optimistic possibilities entailed in this moment were lost on many of the audience members, and I like to think that it accounts for at least a small part of the joy in their applause.

I'm sure there are a lot of different ways to explain what happened in the intervening years between this concert and the Cuban Missile Crisis, but in any case the event demonstrates the irrationality of mass fear that plagues many modern societies in which too many people religiously integrate official narratives into their worldviews. This concert showed that at least some Americans were starting to see through the haze of 1950's anti-communist propaganda. Some say that music is a universal language, but more to the point, it's hard to control how other people interpret it. If in the Soviet Union Richter had any patriotic value as a living national treasure, in the U.S. he was a symbol of how through music, our humanity can disrupt our political tensions. But just two years later, (the Missile Crisis coincided with the two-year anniversary of this concert,) this moment of coming together was swallowed up when Kennedy and Khrushchev himself, neither of whom desired the annihilation of the human race in any way, brought the world closer to destruction than it's ever been.

It seems like an example of convention getting in the way of rational behavior, of bureaucracy taking on a life of its own. But as much as the political system created the crisis, such a standoff would not have been conceivable had Americans not consented to our militaristic brand of diplomacy out of fear. The government sought to manufacture consent through propaganda, but it ended up buying its own story and getting sucked into the panic. This is why fear on a big scale is dangerous, because people can help create it but not control it. Today, some people are a little better informed and more cynical, and it seems like more than before, leaders who spin webs of lies for political purposes lose the trust of many of their citizens. Still, as we can see this very moment in Russia, it takes more than just recognizing a leadership problem to root it out.