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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
1-10. Ten mazurkas [38:29]
11. Polonaise No.1 in C sharp minor, Op.26 No.1 [8:18]
12-14. Three waltzes [9:45]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828) – Ferenc LISZT (1811-1886)
15. Litanei in E flat major [4:56]
Ferenc LISZT
16. Sposalizio in E major from the cycle Years of Pilgrimage, Year Two, Italy [8:17]
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
17. Andante from Sonata-Fantasy No.2 in G sharp minor, Op.19 [8:16]
rec. 11 February 1960 (1-10), 19 February 1960 (12-14), 11 December 1960 (15-17), no venue given.
Alexander SCRIABIN
1-5. Three pieces, Op.2 [10:10]
6-9. Four preludes from Op.17 [5:44]
10. Prelude in G sharp minor, Op.22 No.1 [2:26]
11. Prelude in B major, Op.16 No.1 [2:54]
12. Garlands, Op.73 No.1 [2:54]
Dark flame, Op.73 No.2 [2:10]
14. Poem: To the flame, Op.72 [5:19]
15-30. Preludes [20:33]
31. Poème, Op.52 No.1 [2:11]
32. Poème, Op.59 No.1 [1:36]
33. Poème Aile, Op.51 No.3 [0:47]
34. Poème Languide, Op.52 No.3 [0:47]
35. Poème Satanique, Op.36 [5:47]
36. Sonata No.9, Op.68 [7:41]
37. Fragilité, Op.51 No.1 [1:53]
38. Album Leaf, Op.45 No.1 [1:06]
39. Mazurka in E minor, Op.25 No.3 [1:31]
40. Etude in C sharp minor, Op.42 No.5 [3:05]
Vladimir Sofronitsky (piano)
rec. 1951 (1), 1953 (2, 3), 1948 (4, 7, 11), 1939 (5), 1952 (6, 8, 9), 1946 (10), 1959 (12-14); concerts, Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, 8 January, 2 February 1960 (15-40)
MELODIYA MELCD1002237 [68:43 + 77:25]

In all likelihood, looking back at the 21st century in a hundred years time, people will be able to say how many outstanding pianists there were. This is something we often say about the 20th century and with good reason. From Solomon (1902-88) and moving on via Rudolf Serkin, Claudio Arrau, Vladimir Horowitz, Dinu Lipatti, Geza Anda, Jorge Bolet, Shura Cherkassky, Clifford Curzon, Gyorgy Cziffra, Emil Gilels, Sviatoslav Richter, Glenn Gould, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Martha Argerich the twentieth century was chock full of great pianists as was the 19th century. What is also certain is that anyone’s list will be challenged by many as to who should be replaced by whom and why others were left out so I’d better stop right now.

In a 200 CD box set entitled Great Pianists of the 20th Century issued by Phillips in 1999 and sponsored by Steinway, all the above were included; 3 CDs were devoted to Gilels and Richter. Vladimir Sofronitsky - the subject of this 2 CD set, issued as part of Melodiya’s 50th anniversary celebrations – also had his place there. In the opinion of Richter Sofronitsky was a god on whose death Gilels was said to have remarked: "The greatest pianist in the world has died".

Vladimir Vladimirovich Sofronitsky was virtually born with the century on 8 May 1901 in St. Petersburg to a cultured family. He studied at the Petrograd Conservatory where his fellow students included Shostakovich, Maria Yudina and Scriabin’s daughter Elena whom he married in 1920. Somewhat unusually his repertoire was vast ranging from Buxtehude, Handel, Bach and Scarlatti to Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Kabalevsky though his main interests lay with Chopin, Schumann, Liszt and Scriabin. Hypercritical of his own recordings, he once said “My recordings are my dead bodies” so when he declared himself to be happy with any one you can be sure it was something extra special. On this set several that he approved can be found including Liszt’s arrangement of Schubert’s Litanei and Liszt’s Sposalizio and all Scriabin here.

However, it is with the music of Chopin that the majority of the first disc’s offerings are concerned, all recorded in 1960. They demonstrate a brilliant technique as well as scrupulous attention to detail. These result in an elegance that is particularly attractive and which is an absolute pre-requisite when playing Chopin’s radiant pieces. It is also understandable as to why the Liszt piece and his Schubert arrangement were favourite recordings for Sofronitsky: they are beautifully played, though that is also true of everything else on these discs.

CD 1 ends with the first piece by Scriabin, the longest of his pieces presented here, though it is only the first movement of an eleven minute work that took him five years to write and about which he wrote "The first section represents the quiet of a southern night on the seashore; the development is the dark agitation of the deep, deep sea. The E major middle section shows caressing moonlight coming up after the first darkness of night”. Sofronitsky felt especially drawn to Scriabin’s music well before he met Elena and made his works the particular focus of his career along with Chopin’s. While at first it might seem that these two composers have little in common what binds them are the deepest feelings of emotion. They both wrote, right from the heart and, in Scriabin’s case like Chopin, apart from five orchestral works and his piano concerto, he wrote exclusively for the piano.

Scriabin, as is well known, had some decidedly strange ideas as well as a massive ego once writing that “only my music expressed the inexpressible”. He considered himself a messianic figure buoyed perhaps by the fact that he was born on 25 December according to Russia’s then Julian calendar. Some even attempted to enhance that claim by erroneously attributing his death on 14 April to having being on Easter Sunday though that year it came early, on 29 March.

Sofronitsky adored the music of Scriabin of whom he said “From my young years, through my life and until the end, I will gladly carry my love for him, a living, unfailing and unshakeable one. Life, light, struggle, will, this is the true greatness of Scriabin”. The Great Soviet Encyclopaedia said of Scriabin "No composer has had more scorn heaped upon them or greater love bestowed ...". His biographer wrote that "No one was more famous during their lifetime, and few were more quickly ignored after death." Fortunately, these days, that is no longer true and there are some outstanding recordings of his piano music.

It is interesting that much of his music gives predominance to the left hand which was because he damaged his right hand at an early age, some say while practising Balakirev’s fiendishly difficult Islamey, others Liszt’s Don Juan Fantasy. On this set the recordings of preludes that take up tracks 15-40 are especially affecting.

The sound generally is much better than one might expect considering that Soviet recordings were always criticised heavily for their rough sound. However true that may have been in the case of the original masters the re-mastering by E. Barykina has rendered them more than satisfyingly listenable. While it is perfectly true to say that there are modern versions that are crisper and clearer it is also unreasonable to judge recordings made between 54 and 75 years ago by the same standards.

We should be primarily concerned with the interpretations and on that score Sofronitsky cannot be faulted. The demonic ninth sonata — given the title Black Mass, though not by him — for example, is a towering achievement. These discs are part of recorded legacy that should be cherished.

Steve Arloff