How Sviatoslav Richter came to play in the U.S. of A.

W.A. Grieve Smith

[November 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:1.]

I first became aware of Richter from an article by Paul Moor in High Fidelity: basically a fantastic Russian virtuoso who somehow wasn’t allowed to stray out of Iron Curtain territory. There was one recording of a live concert in Sofia, Bulgaria, wretchedly produced by Bulgarian Radio. And with a live audience from the terminal tubercular ward. The music was the original piano version of Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Not exactly my cup of tea, even in the lush Ravel orchestration. Pity about the primitive recording, but, what can one Yankee collector do about it? Well…

One of my treats at the time, l959, was to browse Joe Greenspan’s Discophile record import shop on 8th St. [Eighth Street in Greenwich Village was once a delight. Not far from the below-pavement-level shop Grieve mentions dwelt Ted Wilensky’s above-pavement-level book shop with its terrific "downtown" poetry collection, one of the best anywhere. Along with much of the Village, the street has degraded to a tawdry bore. --Ed.] Very few European discs were available here in original European pressings. Even Deutsche Grammophon had a deal with Universal’s Decca label here to release their recordings, pressed on a mixture of asphalt and concrete, judging from the noisy surfaces. And EMI had their Hollywood Capitol label doing the same. Worse still, the American labels were even more pop-oriented than today. So they cherry-picked only the sure-fire blockbusters, leaving more obscure titles out of reach domestically.

Dropping by Discophile of an evening I saw Harry Goldman, a garmento record jobber, and Johnny Johnson, who was one of Bob Fine’s mastering (disc cutter) engineers at Mercury Records. Greenspan introduced me to a very cultivated-looking European gentleman who seemed to be fluent in English, French and German. They were all having an animated discussion — argument almost — about recording quality. It seems that Goldman the jobber had signed a deal to import Russian records. And Greenspan and Johnson were warning that the LPs would never catch on here because of primitive sound quality.

To break the impasse, I invited them over to my place nearby for a comparison. As a consultant to Deutsche Grammophon, I had a few brand new stereo LPs, which I played for them on my Dynakit/KLH 6 rig. Then Goldman had me put on one of the Russian pressings. After hearing a few bars, Goldman said: “They are dreck.” And the European gentlemen said: “Oh, do you have that word in English, too?”

It turned that the gentleman was Nikolaus Tsipenko, Kommisar of all books, magazines, records and stamps for the entire Soviet Union. And he had signed the deal with Goldman. Then Tsipenko explained to me that the entire idea was to make dollars, which struck me as a rather capitalistic sentiment, considering the source. Tsipenko added: “The records must be made in the Soviet Union. But it will be years before we can catch up to your American recording quality.”

At this, Johnny and I laughed. And Tsipenko said: “Did I say something amusing?” I apologized by explaining that about the only thing American you’d find in our studios would be the Ampex tape machine — and that had been ripped off from the Germans. Most of the better mics were German or Austrian and the speakers were often English. Tsipenko shook his head and allowed that the Russkies were not allowed to trade with Germany.

So I offered the idea that any records made in the USSR would be Russian-made, even if German equipment was used. And suggested Denmark as a possible place to buy the German equipment. I handed Tsipenko Peter Willamoes’ name and Ortofon’s. But Tsipenko was worried that his Russians wouldn’t know how to use the German gear. So I gave him Gerhardt Detlev’s name at DG. I felt that DG might jump at the chance to record the Moscow Philharmonic — in exchange for training some of their technicians in Hannover.

Tsipenko said: “You must come to Moscow!” I allowed as how I know how to work in recording studios. But would be useless at installing one. Then Tsipenko said: “Name your price.” (The only time in my life that I was ever asked that — and from someone who could make it stick.) I replied that I wanted something that money couldn’t buy: That Sviastoslav Richter be allowed to tour the USA. Tsipenko said: “Done!”

Johnny Johnson did go to Moscow. And Peter Willemoes told me the Russians descended on Copenhagen and bought 25 complete studios! And roughly a year later Gerhardt Detlevs called me offering 2 tickets to Richter’s Carnegie Hall debut, courtesy Nikolaus Tsipenko. And you know what? I was previously booked for shoot in Hollywood that night. So I had to turn down the tickets. And I’ve never heard Richter live. But I have some gorgeous recordings ….