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A Life Among Legends: an impresario looks back, part II

Jacques Leiser ©Jacques Leiser

Many of the biggest musicians of the twentieth century have worked with Jacques Leiser: Richter, Michelangeli, Berman, Arrau, Cziffra, and Callas, to name just a few. As an agent, impresario, and photographer, Leiser helped direct the stunning careers of many household names. Such a life brings with it many valuable stories and insights that take us into the world of the concert artist. Jacques Leiser has recently completed his memoirs, and they are compelling reading. Clavier Companion is pleased to publish excerpts from these memoirs, and the following excerpts detail some of Leiser's experiences with the great pianist Sviatoslav Richter. For additional excerpts, please see the March/April 2016 issue of Clavier Companion.

The start of something big

Upon further reflection on my life and involvement with classical music, I realize that it would never have occurred without gramophone records. I distinctly recall being fascinated by gramophones (hand wound) at an early age, when I was about six years old and persuaded my parents to buy me one for my birthday. The sound it produced fascinated me immediately, and it was at that time that I started to be a record collector. This hobby never left me throughout my life, and it exposed me to outstanding recording artists and the concert world. In fact, it became the bridge which led me to management. This fascination with recordings never left me during my lifetime, and it was a continual source of inspiration. I distinctly recall my first recordings, which included a number of recordings of the works of Chopin. When I was still a teenager, I picked up flyers of pianists wherever I would see them. This all would not have happened if I had not possessed an innate sense of curiosity about recordings, pianists, and concerts. In the early years of my life, there existed fewer opportunities for music lovers to travel and follow favorite artists and concert circuits; recordings helped to connect me with the musical world. Later on, travel facilities expanded and new opportunities arose to obtain musical exposure. I was indeed fortunate to have had "a truly charmed life" and this important support from recordings throughout my life.

Jacques Leiser

A unique collaboration

During Picasso's birthday celebrations in 1961, Sviatoslav Richter said, "I'm going on tour next spring to Italy. Why don't we record the concerts?" Unfortunately for EMI, the Russian authorities never granted exclusive contracts; it was always a matter of the highest bidder, or who got there first. I was able to arrange for EMI and Deutsche Grammophon to collaborate. It was too costly for one company to do all of the recording, and both companies were interested. DG sent a sound truck and did the recording. I insisted on first choice of repertoire and asked for Schumann. That's when Richter recorded the Papillons, Faschingsschwank aus Wien, and the Sonata in G minor, all of which ended up on EMI's Richter in Italy. DG got some Scriabin sonatas and Chopin. After his arrival in Rome, we covered most of Italy in six weeks, starting in Milan on October 2, 1962, and finishing in Brescia on November 18. In Sicily I took the cover picture for the EMI album. It was the first time in history that an EMI record was made by DG! 

One day, the director from Deutsche Grammophon asked if I was Richter's manager, and I said, "No, no, no, I'm not his manager." He looked at me and said, "You're not his manager? Well, why not?" I said, "Me a manager? No, that's not for me. I can't see myself as a manager. It's too commercial and it's too stressful. I like music. Managing is too much high-pressure business. That's why I'm working in the record division, because I'm dedicated to music." Little did I suspect what lay ahead.

Richter at the EMI Wagram Studio, Paris, 1963.

The wanderer

During Richter's tour of Italy in 1962, which included live recordings, I drove him throughout the country. In general, Richter was reluctant to record in studios. He was a spontaneous person and a spontaneous pianist. When he performed, he would stride out on stage and often begin playing almost before he was seated. On his tours he did not like to see microphones, so we hid them in flowerpots and palm trees! Many of his recordings are of live concerts, and he often claimed that his best records were pirated recordings.

Driving Richter around Italy had its hazards; it was profoundly interesting to listen to his discussions of music and art, which continued endlessly, but I found it difficult to concentrate and keep my eyes on the road. This was a big responsibility, and I didn't want to get into an accident. In Turin, before the next concert in Rome, I told him, "Slava, I think it would be more restful for you to take the train." He may have been slightly offended, but thanks to the autostrada (which had no speed limit), I was able to meet him at the train station in time for his arrival in Rome.

There were about eight or ten recitals on a second tour of Italy in 1963, and Richter programmed Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy for all of them; he planned to record this work with EMI at the end of the tour, and this would be excellent preparation for the recording. Some of the performances were monumental and unforgettable, yet others—when he was not in good form and coordinated— were occasionally marred with numerous wrong notes and not up to his standard.

When we returned to Paris, Richter was in a state of exhaustion and coming down with the flu, but he refused to cancel the recording sessions, which had been planned well in advance. They took place at the EMI Wagram recording studio in Paris, but they did not go smoothly and required numerous retakes. This recording made considerable demands on Richter, and he had definite misgivings about the results. However, the record producer assured him they had all the necessary takes and corrections.

Richter asked EMI to send the test pressing to me, since he would be traveling to perform additional concerts in other countries. I was to call him as soon as I received it. It arrived about ten days later. I was bewildered when I listened to it: the recording was note perfect—and unrecognizable as a Richter performance. His typical thrust and passion were completely absent; the recording was uninspired, almost boring.

It became obvious that the recording had been excessively spliced to correct errors, and the interpretation had been destroyed. Richter's recent memorable performances in Italy simply could not be compared with this recording, and I was deeply worried that it would be released.

When I called Richter in Vienna, he asked if I had received the test pressing. I took a deep breath and said I had listened to it, and if this recording were released, it would be entirely his responsibility; I would not want to be involved. There was a long silence…. Richter said he would return to Paris and redo the recording in two weeks. I immediately considered the likely consequences and offered to send him the test pressing so he could judge for himself. He remained adamant, saying it wasn't necessary for him to hear it. He requested that EMI reschedule the recording. 

This would involve considerable scheduling problems—as well as expense—to bring the technical crew, equipment, and producer from London to Paris. To compound the problem, the EMI management was satisfied with the recording and objected to redoing it. I was caught in the middle of the dispute. I had told EMI that Richter refused to approve the recording. My situation was precarious: if EMI discovered that Richter had decided to redo the recording without having heard the test pressing, I probably would have been fired.

EMI reluctantly went along with Richter's wishes. When he arrived in Paris, however, they wanted to go to his hotel with equipment and a copy of the test pressing to persuade him not to redo the recording. He resolutely refused and insisted on redoing the recording. What followed was the most extraordinary recording session I ever witnessed.

Richter re-recorded the entire Wanderer Fantasy at one sitting. The work lasts nearly thirty minutes, and no sooner had he finished, than he immediately began performing it again, without allowing the producer to interrupt, and he continued until he had performed the entire work five times without stopping—after which he began to play the Liszt B-Minor Sonata in a manner I had never heard before! Unfortunately, the producer interrupted him at this point, which was regrettable. The entire sonata could have been recorded at a time when Richter was at the zenith of his hypnotic power.

Richter then rose from the piano, walked into the listening room, and asked to hear the five different versions. Each version was a masterful performance, infused with unlimited passion, inspiration, and technical command. Only slight corrections were needed. Richter chose the second version. The producer and the crew were radiant— they realized the performances were all stupendous and unique. Fortunately, I had my camera with me and took photographs of Richter listening to the playback.

Richter then at last asked to hear the earlier version he had refused to approve; the difference was like day and night. He suggested that both versions be issued on the same LP! EMI was astonished by this and flatly refused. When the record was released, it was awarded the Grand Prix du Disque—one of the most prestigious record awards in France. Richter and I were vindicated, and EMI never learned of my involvement in having Richter remake the recording.

Picasso's birthday

In the autumn of 1961, major celebrations were held in France in honor of Picasso's eightieth birthday, not long after Sviatoslav Richter's first appearance in the West. He was invited to play a recital in honor of Picasso in the neighborhood of Picasso's studio at Vallauris on the Riviera, and I accompanied him. We drove to Juan-les-Pins, where a large outdoor luncheon was scheduled. Many artists and friends of Picasso were present, including the famous bullfighters Ordóñez and Dominguín; Maurice Thorez, the head of the French Communist Party; and other left-wing writers.

Photographers were excluded from the luncheon. I had my camera with me, however, and I photographed Picasso embracing Richter when they were introduced. It was a very moving occasion. I also met Picasso's wife, Françoise Gilot, who later married Dr. Jonas Salk, and photographed her as well as Picasso's teenage daughter Paloma and son Claude. Richter's recital there was his first performance in France outside of Paris. He and Picasso deeply admired each other. It was a memorable event. 

Richter and Picasso, Juan-les-Pins, France, 1961. ©Jacques Leiser

As we drove back from Juanles- Pins, Richter became hungry, so we stopped at an inn in Arles, the village where Van Gogh had lived. It was after 3:00 p.m., and the proprietor said she could offer only cold dishes—melon and salad—to which we agreed. After a pleasant lunch on the terrace, I went inside to pay the bill, and was surprised to see two grand pianos in the main room. Richter followed me inside and also noticed the pianos. The proprietor saw my quizzical expression and asked, "Do you play?" "No," I replied, "but my friend does." She urged Richter to play—not knowing who he was—but he appeared reluctant. The proprietor and I then went into another room to pay the bill. While there, we suddenly heard a fragment of the Schumann Fantasie in C. It was a magnificent sound, as if we were in a cathedral. Richter had decided to try one of the pianos after all. 

As we left, the proprietor said, "My goodness! Your friend is really very talented!" I didn't mention who he was, and even if I had, it probably would not have meant anything to her, as Richter was relatively new to France at the time and almost unknown. I never understood why those two grand pianos were in that room.

Upon my return to Paris, I left the film with pictures from Juan-les- Pins to be developed, and traveled to London. Near my hotel, I saw a bookstore on New Bond Street with books on Picasso in the window in celebration of his birthday. One of the more striking books contained David Duncan's photographs of Picasso's private art collection. The collection contained other artists' work that Picasso had obtained in exchange for his own, and was housed in a castle owned by Picasso in the south of France. Duncan was an American photographer who had received permission to photograph this collection, which had never been exhibited. The book was fascinating, and I wanted very much to own it. The price was high, about eight English pounds, hardly affordable on my salary at EMI, but I decided to purchase it anyway.

When I returned to Paris and viewed my photographs from Juan-les-Pins, I decided to ask Picasso if he would sign the Duncan book. I wrapped the book, and included the photographs of Richter and Picasso and a note stating how memorable the occasion had been for me. I asked if he would sign the Duncan book as a souvenir of my visit, and I mailed the package to his studio in Vallauris.

An original Picasso drawing of the author.©Jacques Leiser

Weeks went by and I heard nothing. Some time later at a reception, I met an acquaintance of Picasso, the director of a French record company, Chant du Monde. When I mentioned sending the book to Picasso, he looked at me and said, "You did what? My poor friend, you'll never see that book again!" I asked, "Why not?" He replied, "Well, I was at his studio in Vallauris just a few weeks ago. You have to climb over all the packages he receives from everywhere in the world; he never gets around to opening them so they just accumulate in his studio." "My God!" I thought, "I paid eight pounds for that book!"

Several weeks later, however, returning to my desk at EMI after lunch, I found a package my secretary had just left. I recognized the wrapping, which I had used to send the package to Picasso. "Thank God!" I said to myself, "At least he had the decency to return it!" I left the package on a shelf for a couple of days. When I finally opened it, I saw a colored drawing on the blank frontispiece: Picasso had drawn an image of me in pastels and inscribed it to me with his signature! I couldn't believe it. I was amazed. An original Picasso— dedicated to me! This was beyond my wildest dreams. I took the book to a framer on the Left Bank who removed the drawing and framed it.

Years later, when I moved my office to New York, I personally carried the Picasso drawing from the plane to the customs inspection point. The flight had been rerouted to Maine because of fog in New York. The customs agent there asked, "What do you have there?" I nonchalantly replied, "Some artwork." He asked to see it and I felt uneasy, as duty was required for artwork less than seventy-five years old, and the date on the drawing was recent. The agent looked at the Picasso drawing and asked, "How much is the frame worth?" Evidently Picasso was not well known in Maine, and I didn't have to pay any duty on the drawing!

When I contacted an insurance agent and mentioned my drawing, he advised me to have it appraised, suggesting that I call Sotheby's or Christie's. Christie's sent a young Englishman named Christopher Burge to appraise it. He looked like a student who had just left Oxford, but he proved to be extremely knowledgeable. I learned a considerable amount from him about my art collection, which included works by the Russian artist Robert Falk, Richter, Chagall, Braque, and Poliakoff, as well as the Picasso. He sent the appraisal soon after, and later sent more information after doing further research.

Several years later my insurance broker said it was time to reappraise the pictures. I called Christie's and requested that they send Mr. Burge to do another appraisal. The person with whom I spoke said, "I'm sorry, but that's impossible." When I asked, "Why? He did a great job and I want him to do the appraisal again," she repeated, "I'm sorry ... but that's simply not possible." I asked, "Why not? Isn't he with Christie's any longer?" "Oh, very much so," she replied, "he is now the president." So my photographs of Picasso and Richter were not the only valuable souvenirs I retained from that extraordinary day in 1961! 

Editor's note: Additional excerpts from Jacques Leiser's memoirs were published in the March/April 2016 issue of Clavier Companion. 

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