Sapellnikov’s father, Leo, was conductor of the Odessa Opera Company. He taught his son to play the violin so that by the age of seven young Vassily made his public debut as a violinist, not as a pianist. It was Vassily’s mother who taught him to play the piano, and when the great Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein heard the eleven-year-old Sapellnikov play the piano at the Odessa Conservatory he was so impressed that he insisted the piano was the instrument he should concentrate on. With the help of Rubinstein’s generous efforts, the city of Odessa granted Sapellnikov an annual stipend enabling the thirteen-year-old boy to study at the St Petersburg Conservatory for two years with Louis Brassin, and then for three years with Sophie Menter.
At the age of twenty, Sapellnikov was playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 23 in Hamburg with the composer conducting, having been recommended as a soloist to Tchaikovsky by Sophie Menter. He played the same concerto at his London debut in 1889 and the following year gave the British première of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G major Op. 44 at a Crystal Palace concert. Tchaikovsky’s observations of the young pianist’s playing are revealed in his Diary of my Tour where he writes, ‘Now, at the rehearsal, as Sapellnikov surmounted one after another the inconceivable difficulties of my concerto, and gradually revealed all the power and distinctiveness of his colossal gift, my enthusiasm increased, and, what was still more agreeable, it was shared by the whole orchestra, who applauded him warmly between each break, and particularly at the end. A rare force, beauty, and brilliancy of tone; inspired warmth of rendering; a wonderful power of self-restraint; finish of detail, musical sensibility, and complete self-confidence – these are the distinguishing characteristics of Sapellnikov’s playing.’ Three days later, Tchaikovsky was writing to his brother Modeste, ‘I take Sapellnikov with me wherever I go, and have introduced him to many people in the musical world. Wherever he plays he creates a sensation.’ A few days later he wrote to Modeste, ‘Wolf gave a dinner-party at my desire, in order that all the great lights here might hear Sapellnikov. All the critics were there. Sapellnikov created a furore. For the last three weeks we have been inseparable.’ The following April Tchaikovsky and Sapellnikov were in Paris where the composer asked conductor Édouard Colonne to hear Sapellnikov; he immediately engaged him as a soloist for his concerts.
From reviews of his concerts it would seem that Sapellnikov was an inconsistent performer. He obviously had a comprehensive technique, as he played Henselt’s formidable Piano Concerto in F minor Op. 16 in London in 1890 at a Philharmonic Society concert. Sapellnikov played solo repertoire that was standard for the time: the more well-known of Beethoven’s piano sonatas (particularly the ‘Appassionata’), Mendelssohn’s Variations Sérieuses, Haydn’s Variations in F minor, Chopin’s larger works such as the Fantaisie in F minor Op. 49, polonaises, scherzos and nocturnes, and Liszt’s transcription of Wagner’s Tannhäuser. He nearly always played a few solos by Tchaikovsky, often giving first London performances of these works.
By the early 1890s critics were applauding Sapellnikov’s advances at the keyboard. He numbered around twenty-five concertos in his repertoire. One critic wrote that his performance of Anton Rubinstein’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in D minor Op. 70 was ‘…very finely interpreted by M. Sapellnikov, whose marked improvement in dignity and breadth of style has been one of the most satisfactory features of the present musical season’. Four years later, ‘The surprising improvement in artistic thoroughness and intelligence manifested by this clever pianist in the last few years was abundantly illustrated at the first of his three recitals given yesterday afternoon in St James’s Hall.’ He played ‘unfamiliar’ works by Scarlatti, Bach and Mozart as well as music by Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, Tchaikovsky and some of his own compositions.
By the turn of the century, Sapellnikov was receiving less favourable reviews. Concerts by Raoul Pugno, Ernő Dohnányi and Sapellnikov caused a critic to note that ‘M. Sapellnikov is the wayward Slav held in check by a sense of refinement… there was not the freedom in his playing which was strongly characteristic of his earlier appearances here some years ago.’ Yet five years later in 1907, ‘A most interesting pianoforte recital was given yesterday afternoon at the Steinway Hall by Herr Sapellnikov who began his programme boldly with two big sonatas – the ‘Appassionata’ and the first of the two that Glazunov has written. These two sonatas enabled Herr Sapellnikov to show that he has lost none of his powers as a player, and has, on the contrary, added a certain fullness and dignity to the brilliance of his technique.’ He also played an étude by Liapunov and Liszt’s transcription of the overture to Rossini’s Guillaume Tell. Regular appearances in London continued, and in December 1910 Sapellnikov played a Liszt centenary concert (a few months early, as he would not be in London during 1911) when he played both piano concertos, the Hungarian Fantasy and the arrangement of Schubert’s ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy for piano and orchestra. In 1914 he played Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18, a work he had introduced to London in May 1902.
In 1922 Sapellnikov escaped Bolshevik Russia by swimming across a river to Poland, proceeding thence to Germany where he resided in Leipzig and Munich. He continued to perform in the 1920s, but seems to have toured far less frequently during the last decade of his life. His last days were spent in Italy where he died in San Remo.
Sapellnikov wrote works for the piano, of which he recorded his Gavotte, Waltz in E flat and Polka Miniature, and an opera entitled Der Khan und sein Sohn. He favoured programmes of large works such as Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor, Glazunov’s Piano Sonata in B flat minor and Schumann’s Fantasie Op. 17, Carnaval Op. 9 or Études Symphoniques Op. 13. He was a player of fine qualities who avoided bombast and vulgarity, and possessed a pure sound at the keyboard. He had a fluid technique which he retained through the period of his recordings.
Sapellnikov recorded for Vocalion between 1923 and 1927, during his visits to London. Most important of his recordings is the one he made in 1926 of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 23. Although only recorded with a studio orchestra and house conductor, this performance gives an idea of how this work was performed before it was turned into an octave showcase by Horowitz and his imitators. It is lyrical, pliant and introspective, a beautifully moulded performance in a style rarely, if ever, heard today. Most of Sapellnikov’s discs were recorded with the acoustic process, and even the sound of the few electrically recorded sides are not much better as Vocalion used a recording process inferior to most of the other companies at the time. There are only around sixteen discs, but all have something worth hearing on them, and of particular note are Tchaikovsky’s Humoresque in G major Op. 10 No. 2 and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12. Sapellnikov’s tone quality, ease of technique and unobtrusive style can be heard to advantage in Balakirev’s transcription of Glinka’s song The Lark, whilst Chopin’s Waltz in E flat Op. 18 is played with elegance and charm. The Tchaikovsky concerto and some of the solos were reissued on compact disc by Pearl in 1995.
It has often been rumoured that Sapellnikov recorded Rachmninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor but that the discs were never issued. This is indeed true. Over three days in February and two in May 1929, Sapellnikov recorded for the Decca company this work that he introduced to London in 1902. Basil Cameron conducted his ‘Symphony Orchestra’ although it is possible that Julian Clifford conducted some of the sessions. If this electrical recording ever appeared, it would afford an opportunity to hear Sapellnikov in good quality electrical sound; but as it was not issued due to technical reasons, it is unlikely to have survived.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).