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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
The Art of Sofronitsky
Arabesque Op.18 [6.20]
Carnaval Op.9 [25.05]
Des Abends Op.12 No.1 [3.20]
Kreisleriana Op.16 [31.27]
Vladimir Sofronitsky (piano)
rec. 1952 (Arabesque, Kreisleriana) and 1959 (Des Abends, Carnaval)
CLASSICAL RECORDS 004 [66.14]


I’ve written about Sofronitsky’s Schumann before; in fact this same programme, with the same running order, in Vista Vera’s release of a few years ago (see review). A few words, then to reprise the performances and then some thoughts about transfers.

An individualist of powerful personality Sofronitsky's last, live recordings - he preferred them to studio ones - have generally been shrouded in rumour as to his state of health. His early death has been ascribed to alcoholism but arrhythmia has been convincingly advanced as a reason for his increasing debilitation during those final years. Certainly these Schumann performances enshrine uneven musicianship which at its best rises to exceptionally eloquent heights but which can also rely on less immediately appealing characteristics.
 
In Carnaval for instance he takes time - understandably - to warm up but also indulges in some precipitous voicings and some harsh accents (in Préambule), quixotic tempo acceleration (Pierrot) and heavy handed phrasing (Coquette). This is the kind of performance to be judged on its own terms and reference to say, Rachmaninov's or Myra Hess's legendary recordings is best put to one side. Sofronitsky is aptly full of vigour and incisive rhythm in Lettres dansantes (though his speed here is relatively sedate) but does tend to make a bit of a meal of the rubato, voicings and dichotomy between rough rhythm and legato in Estrella.
 
Kreisleriana amplifies these occasional extremes of response. In places he's quite expansive, and he tends to prefer relaxed nobility of rhythm to say, Horowitz's sense of urgency. That said his gravity and weighted chords in the fourth of the pieces (Sehr Langsam) is undeniably affecting and taken at a convincing tempo. Arabesque is also fine and an attractive reading.
 
Uneven yes but unsettlingly human and with a technique still able to cope with most demands, Sofronitsky remains one of the troubling giants of post-War pianism.
 
As for transfer perspectives one finds that there’s a touch more surface noise on Vista Vera and a degree more presence on Classical Records. Sometimes the aggressive sound has defeated both companies even to the extent of a rather metallic edge creeping into the newer transfer. Otherwise there’s really not much to choose between them – and I wonder as to the original source material used, information that is not divulged. The newcomer’s notes are definitely better though.
 
Jonathan Woolf  


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