The Risk of Surrender: Sviatoslav Richter, Saint Peter, and Salvation

by The Rev’d Craig Lemming

“None of us knows what might happen even the next minute, yet still we go forward. Because we trust. Because we have Faith.” – Paulo Coelho, ‘Brida’

Pianist Sviatoslav Richter is one of my favorite enigmas. This past Saturday – the anniversary of his death – I watched, for maybe the twelfth time, Bruno Monsaingeon’s haunting documentary, ‘Richter: The Enigma.

There are two scenes in the film I find deeply moving. First, the jubilant footage of Richter’s Christmas party (at the 59:43 minute mark) accompanied by the rapturous opening of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. We feel the warm affection of Slava joyfully hugging and kissing his friends as they arrive in his apartment. The candlelit Christmas tree, the gleeful opening of gifts, flowers exchanged, shoes, coats, handbags, hats, scarves, and gloves tossed off with the contented ease of homecoming, friends making music at his piano, laughter, jumping, dancing, and lots of champagne for everyone to enjoy. Then I try to imagine what Christmas might feel like at the end of this dystopian year, and fears, doubts, and sighs crowd in.

As I meditated on Saint Peter and the Christ walking on water, I remembered the following excerpts[1] from Sviatoslav Richter’s Notebooks and Conversations. He writes,

“I never choose a piano and don’t try them out before a concert. It’s useless and demoralizing. I place myself in the hands of the piano tuner. If I’m on form, I can adapt to no matter what instrument, whereas if I’m in doubt, I never succeed in doing so. You have to believe, more than Saint Peter, that you’ll walk on water. If you don’t believe it, you’ll go under, and straight away.”

Richter goes on to recount how he was due to give a recital at the Soviet Embassy in Paris when he received a phone call from the piano tuner warning him that the embassy’s Steinway was completely unplayable. Richter immediately canceled the concert. The ambassador, however, ignored his cancellation, and as the audience gathered, he phoned Sviatoslav Richter and begged him to play. Richter writes,

“His words moved me to pity and so I decided to go there in spite of everything, convinced the concert would be a disaster. I went out on the platform, thinking ‘To hell with the piano and the rest of them,’ and launched into Brahms’ Sonata in F minor. It was probably my best concert of the season.”

The following scene at the end of the documentary also brings me to tears. It captures what Bruno Monsaingeon describes as “a face of such overwhelming sadness but that was also often comical and, above all, infinitely expressive.” For me, Richter’s face is imbued with the tragic beauty of Saint Peter – the one who, despite all of his shortcomings, continually surrendered entirely to living with a faithful and fierce trust in God.  

In the same way I long to embrace Saint Peter as he weeps bitterly every Good Friday, when Richter admits, “I do not like myself,” I yearn to give Slava the same warm hug and kiss he gave each of his friends all those Christmases ago. Monsaingeon’s choice of Schubert’s Sonata in B flat major to bookend his film is inspired. In the words of Stephen Hough,

“[Schubert’s Sonata in B flat major] is one of those occasions when the pen has to be set down on the desk, the body rested against the back of a chair, and a listener’s whole being surrendered to enter another sphere. Here there is neither the superficial gloss of refinement nor the mawkish self-consciousness of profundity; rather Schubert’s miraculous ability to bare his soul without a trace of narcissism – a combined result of his humility and universality; and an exquisite unawareness of both.”[2]

This Sunday, before he reaches out his hand and catches Saint Peter, Jesus will say all of this to us again, but much more succinctly: “Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’”


[1] Sviatoslav Richter, Notebooks and Conversations, ed. Bruno Monsaingeon (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001), 108-10.

[2] Stephen Hough, Rough Ideas: Reflections On Music and More (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020), 210.

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