Vladimir Sofronitsky - Concert Recordings
Vladimir Sofronitsky (piano)
rec. live in concerts, 1951-60
MELODIYA MELCD1002312 [5 CDs: 5:17:14 & DVD: 44:00]

“The greatest piano player in the world” he was called by Emil Gilels, and Heinrich Neuhaus, Maria Yudina, Sviatoslav Richter and many others in Russia held the same opinion of Vladimir Sofronitsky. There is more of this adulation to be heard on the sixth disc of this set which is a documentary on Sofronitsky by the director Andrei Konchalovsky (who is one of the interviewees and whose family was close to the pianist he tells us). The pupils and friends line up to extol his qualities, and the most common observations concern his ‘uniqueness’, and his sheer dedication to his work. It gives a strong sense too of the role of the piano in Russian culture of the last century. What other nation can boast an array of pianist composers the likes of Scriabin, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Shostakovich? (One might add Medtner but his music does not feature in this box, unlike the others). I viewed the film only after listening to the sound recordings, but it might better serve as an introduction, alerting the viewer to the way a Sofronitsky concert was experienced before hearing what these witnesses felt they had heard.

These five discs of live recordings vary in sound quality, from quite good enough (the great majority) to rather poor, but the quality of performance is more consistent, from the very good to the spellbinding. The principal composer on the first three discs is Schumann, with four major works. The Fantasy is the least persuasive of these, with a curiously halting account of the (normally) stirring middle movement, where Sofronitsky seems surprisingly fallible in the difficulties on the final pages. The outer movements though have plenty of fine playing, and, well, fantasy – at times he seems to be improvising the work for us. The Symphonic Studies Op.13 (which here include the five ‘posthumous variations’ left out of the published version) is far more uniform, indeed grows in cumulative power, so that the final sequence of Etudes VIII-XII makes a splendid conclusion. Carnaval and the Sonata No.1 are equally impressive, even though imperfect. At times eccentric, and always individual, this is Schumann playing commensurate with those other great Russian Schumann interpreters, Rachmaninov and Richter.

But even more than Schumann, Sofronitsky has usually been regarded as a major performer of Chopin. Chopin features in the form of just two nocturnes and the first two Scherzos, but each is quite inimitable. The Scherzos in particular are fiery and deeply poetic by turns, with clean articulation at fast tempi and a sort of confiding intimacy in the lyrical passages. The listener’s attention is held throughout by a compelling sense of an unfolding narration. Schubert too really comes alive, even in the over familiar pair of Impromptus we have here sounding freshly composed, so intense is the expression at times. The Prokofiev and Rachmaninov works are more predictably idiomatic, as are the two Shostakovich Preludes from his Op.87, played when they were still new music of course. The main disappointment is the Liszt Dante Sonata which has sound which is too clangorous and at times distorted, though even that cannot prevent something of his transcendental pianism coming through.

But above all Sofronitsky was most revered for the playing of the music of his favourite composer, Alexander Scriabin (whose daughter he married). There is plenty here to explain why that was so. The pianist sounds utterly absorbed in the idiom, especially in the elusive other-wordly later sonatas that open Disc 5, which receive incandescent readings, coruscatingly played with every demonic trill hinting at some unfolding mystery. At one point in the film the thought is advanced that the pianist is an intermediary between the listeners and “something beyond this world”. That role is more often allotted to a priest, but these live accounts of late Scriabin gives some idea why Sofronitsky was once viewed as a sort of pianistic prophet or mystic. The shorter lyrical works of Scriabin are also vehicles here for a special kind of withdrawn introspection, the artist communing with the music. But the shorter pieces are not of course all introspective in character, and the very last item, the fiery Etude in D sharp minor has all the technical wizardry and volatile spontaneity one could wish for. It makes a fine curtain to the most important of the five discs.

It is said that Sofronitsky, far from having a settled interpretation of a work, was often so spontaneous he could play the same piece quite differently just a few days apart. That would explain why he disliked studio recording, and he is best heard in live recordings like these. There have been similarly compendious Sofronitsky issues, including a 9-disc box from Brilliant (review), so that fans of his art might have some of these recordings already. But the film is a useful addition, and the selection reasonably representative of the central repertoire of a magnificent artist.

Roy Westbrook

Disc 1 [60:35]
Robert Schumann: Fantasy in C Major, Op. 17 [28:46]
Robert Schumann: Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13 [25:29]
Robert Schumann: Arabeske in C Major, Op. 18 [6:08]
Rec. 18 Nov. 1959, Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatory
Disc 2 [78:58]
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Fantasia in C Minor, K. 475 [11:09]
Franz Schubert: 4 Impromptus, Op. 90, D. 899:
No. 3 in G-Flat Major [5:56]
No. 4 in A-Flat Major [7:06]
Robert Schumann: Piano Sonata No. 1 in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 11 [28:03]
Frédéric Chopin: Nocturnes, Op. 15:
No. 2 in F-Sharp Major [3:20]
No. 1 in F Major [4:22]
Frédéric Chopin: Scherzo No. 1 in B Minor, Op. 20 [9:51]
Frédéric Chopin: Scherzo No. 2 in B-Flat Minor, Op. 31 [9:04]
Rec. 13 May 1960, Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatory
Disc 3 [59:35]
Robert Schumann: Carnaval, Op. 9 [24:51]
Robert Schumann: Fantasiestücke, Op. 12: I. Des Abends [3:11]
Robert Schumann: 3 Romances, Op. 28: No. 1 in B-Flat Minor [3:38]
Alexander Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 4 in F-Sharp Major, Op. 30 [7:44]
Alexander Scriabin: Poème tragique, Op. 34 [3:17]
Alexander Scriabin: Valse in A-Flat Major, Op. 38 [6:26]
Alexander Scriabin: 12 Études, Op. 8: No. 11 in B-Flat Minor [3:59]
Sergei Rachmaninoff: 6 Moments musicaux, Op.16:
No. 5 in D-Flat Major [3:12]
No. 2 in E-Flat Minor [3:03]
Rec. 18 Nov. 1959 (Schumann) and 13 May 1960 (Scriabin and Rachmaninov), Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatory
Disc 4 [52:42]
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Fantasy in C Minor, K. 396/385f [7:18]
Franz Liszt: Années de pèlerinage II, Italie, S.161: VII. Après une lecture du Dante [15:02}
Claude Debussy: Children's Corner, L. 113: III. Serenade for the Doll [2:23]
Anatoly Lyadov: A Musical Snuffbox, Op. 32 [1:50]
Sergei Prokofiev: Sarcasms, Op. 17: V. Precipitosissimo [2:26]
Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 7 in B-Flat Major, Op. 83 [16:06]
Dmitri Shostakovich: 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87:
No. 9 in E Major [4:22]
No. 3 in G Major [3:08]
Rec. 1955 Scriabin Memorial Museum (Prokofiev and Shostakovich), and 26 Nov. 1951 Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory (the rest).
Disc 5 [66:13]
Alexander Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 8, Op. 66 [12:52]
Alexander Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 5, Op. 53 [11:12]
Alexander Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 9, Op. 68 - "Black Mass" [7:56]
Alexander Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 10, Op. 70 [11:22]
Alexander Scriabin: 24 Preludes, Op. 11: No. 4 in E Minor [1:28]
Alexander Scriabin: 6 Preludes, Op. 13: No. 6 in B Minor [1:21]
Alexander Scriabin: Prelude for the Left Hand, in C-Sharp Minor Op. 9 [2:30]
Alexander Scriabin: 24 Preludes, Op. 11: No. 10 in C-Sharp Minor [1:00]
Alexander Scriabin: 5 Preludes, Op. 16: No. 5 in F-Sharp Major [0:33]
Alexander Scriabin: 24 Preludes, Op. 11:
No. 17 in A-Flat Major [0:38]
No. 19 in E-Flat Major [1:04]
No. 20 in C Minor [1:00]
No. 23 in F Major [0:37]
Alexander Scriabin: 2 Poèmes, Op. 63: No. 1 Masque [1:02]
Alexander Scriabin: 2 Poèmes, Op. 32:
No 2 in D Major [1:42]
No 1 in F-Sharp Major [3:07]
Alexander Scriabin: 2 Poèmes, Op. 69:
No. 1 Allegretto [1:44]
No. 2 Allegretto [1:18]
Alexander Scriabin: 2 Mazurkas, Op. 40: No. 2 in F-Sharp Major [1:15]
Alexander Scriabin: 12 Études, Op. 8: No. 12 in D-Sharp Minor [2:23]
Rec. 8 June, 1958 (Scriabin Sonatas 5 and 8); 8 Jan. and 2 Feb. 1960 (the rest), Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory
Disc 6 (DVD) [44:00]
“Geniuses: Vladimir Sofronitsky”
a film by Andrei Konchalovsky (2007)

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