What separates great talent from great artistry? When does the drive for perfection rob an artist of the ability to enjoy his genius? Sviatoslav Richter was considered by both his critics and peers to be one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century. But to watch him as an 80-year-old man declare with resignation, "I do not like myself. That's it," is as baffling as it is heartbreaking.
Notoriously private, Richter spent his entire life shunning cameras and reporters only to finally agree to be interviewed near the end of his life. Through most of Bruno Monsaingeon's documentary, the Russian pianist jokes, talks about his life, comments on contemporaries and discusses years of performance with only a hint of self-loathing. Like most greats, he's critical of his achievements but more than happy to wax poetic about topics dear to his heart: theater, opera, contemporary music and painting. There are brief interludes with his wife, soprano Nina Dorliac, comments from his piano teacher Heinrich Neuhaus and batty remarks from Glenn Gould, but mostly Richter plays narrator to his own life story, giving the film a stream-of-consciousness quality, as if he were flipping through decades of personal diaries.
Intercut with grainy home movies and archival footage, Monsaingeon frequently juxtaposes Richter's observations with recordings of his phenomenal playing and the effect it had on both colleagues and audiences alike. A fascinating 1950s Soviet propaganda film where the pianist dazzles audiences with a Chopin recital is only outdone by footage of Benjamin Britten gleefully playing Mozart in duet with the Russian master. As the piece concludes, the violist's joyous smile perfectly captures how making beautiful music can become its own muse.
It's unlikely that audiences unfamiliar with classic music will enjoy a two-and-a-half-hour subtitled film featuring an elderly Russian pianist and mostly low-resolution footage of his performances. For fans of classical piano, however, there's little doubt that this absorbing and sad portrait of musical genius will be viewed as inspiring, poignant, witty and ultimately frustrating.
When the final moments of Monsaingeon's documentary finally come, Richter's depressed confession leaves you with a bitter aftertaste, suggesting that after a lifetime of achievement, the artist was not only incapable of appreciating his talents, he was indifferent to the delight it brought his fans. How very Russian.
Richter: The Enigma shows at 3 p.m. on Sunday, March 16, at the Michigan Theater (603 E Liberty St., Ann Arbor; 734-668-8397). A series of special events runs throughout the week: Monsaingeon's film, Glenn Gould Hereafter, shows at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, March 18, in the East Quad Auditorium. "Conversation with the Artist," a lecture by the filmmaker, is at 7 p.m., Wednesday, March 19. "Face to Face," a panel discussion featuring Bruno Monsaingeon and photographer Peter Turnley, moderated by U-M professor Hubert Cohen, is at 7 p.m., Thursday, March 20. Both lectures take place in the East Quad building, Room 126, on the U-M campus in Ann Arbor. Call 734-647-9960 for directions or further info. All events are free and open to the public.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.