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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Sonata no. 23 in F Minor, op. 57 “Appassionata” [20:56]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Carnaval, op. 9 [26:57]
Sergei RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
Etude-Tableaux in B Minor, op. 39 no. 4 [2:32]
Etude-Tableaux in A minor, op. 39 no. 6 [2:54]
Oriental Sketch (1917) [1:53]
Etude-Tableaux in E-flat Major, op. 33 no. 4 [1:57]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Rigaudon & Prelude (from Ten Pieces, op. 12) [3:26]
Vladimir Sofronitsky (piano)
rec. live, October 10, 1952, Grand Hall of the Moscow State Conservatory

The Russian pianist Vladimir Sofronitsky (1901-1961) is something of a cult figure. Like many classical musicians who purposefully or inadvertently cultivate a fanatical following, he shunned the making of commercial discs, but allowed recordings to be made at his live performances. These recordings were released on obscure labels, traded and sold like illicit jewels, and until the advent of the internet, were not always easy to obtain, a state of affairs that added to his mystique. Because the majority of his discs are live recordings, his playing on record is variable. Performing was an ordeal for the sensitive Sofronitsky, and according to some sources, he coped with the stress by drinking and taking drugs. This particular 1952 recital has significant ups and downs; I doubt that Sofronitsky would have been enthusiastic about its release.

The Beethoven “Appassionata” sonata was one of Sofronitsky’s warhorses. In the decade before his death, it was one of his three “go-to” Beethoven Sonatas (the other two being the “Moonlight” and op. 111); at least three different recordings of the work exist from that time period (1952, 1957, 1960). This performance is passionate without being distinctive. If one were to hear it live, it would be impressive, but on record, it’s a splashy, often chaotic “Appassionata.” The loud portions of the first movement have the wild approach of an Arthur Rubinstein performance without the Polish pianist’s out-of-control rhythm. The second movement features over-emphatic dotted rhythms that make the music sound lumpy (counter to Beethoven’s long phrase markings). The tempo in the final movement is not particularly fast, but Sofronitsky struggles; the hands de-synchronize in 16th note v. 8th note passages, and numerous notes fall by the wayside. Even when things are functioning from a technical perspective, there’s a hysterical feeling to the proceedings that makes it seem like the performance could go off the rails at any moment. For many, this is a feature, not a bug, but it may be unsettling for those used to the more sanitized, squared-away playing of most modern pianists.

The Schumann Carnaval is much more successful. Sofronitsky rips into the piece with vigor; on this particular day, the scales were tipped firmly in favor of Florestan (the vehement imaginary figure who represented Schumann’s more outspoken critical persona). Tempi are on the fast side without possessing the note of hysteria heard in the Beethoven. He plays with a great deal of color, and is not afraid of applying generous amounts of rubato. Compared to modern pianists, his speed-ups and slow-downs are significant, but in context, they never seem excessive. He is very good at honoring Schumann’s interesting articulations in a way that make you notice them without making them seem out-of-place. Listen to the slurred staccato markings in “Pierrot,” for example; many pianists diligently perform them, but they lack the unique spring that Sofronitsky finds in the sound. Odd voicing choices that detract from the Beethoven here fit the music perfectly. Sofronitsky will suddenly emphasize the thumb in an octave passage, or bring out an unexpected tenor line; these “inner voices” often provide an emotional counterpoint to the melodic line, and the result is much more intriguing than the standard dominant melody + subdued accompaniment. This is an excellent Carnaval.

The Rachmaninoff pieces are unfocused and messy, without having anything remarkable to recommend them from an interpretive point of view. The Prokofiev selections are dull as music, and Sofronitsky does not do much to elevate them. One suspects that there was more performed on this recital that didn’t make it onto the CD; a canny pianist like Sofronitsky would not end a concert with the uninspired prelude from the op. 12 Prokofiev set.

A note on the CD. The sound is decent at first (for a tape recording of its vintage). During Carnaval, however, one begins to hear an intrusive electronic sound, not quite a hum or a buzz. It increases in intensity, and although it is never loud, it begins to pull focus from the playing. In the Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev items, one becomes aware of distant voices singing or speaking. These may be artefacts left on the tape from previous items recorded there. Regardless of the cause, it is distracting. The 26th and 27th track listings are switched on the CD label; the Oriental Sketch should be listed as the 26th, the E-flat Major Etude-Tableaux as the 27th.

I would not recommend this CD to a newcomer as being representative of Vladimir Sofronitsky’s art. For a better introduction to his playing, seek out the Melodiya double CD set (“Russian Piano School vol. 5”), or if you can find it, the Arbiter disc “Scriabin Chez Scriabin,” recorded on Scriabin’s own piano. If you’re an old hand at the Sofronitsky game, this CD might be worth it for the Carnaval performance.

Richard Masters

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