Vladimir Sofronitsky’s father was a professor of mathematics and physics and his mother a relation of the portrait painter Vladimir Borovikovsky. Sofronitsky and his twin sister Vera were the youngest of six children. In 1903 the family moved to Warsaw where Sofronitsky studied piano with Anna Lebedeva-Getsevich, who had herself studied with Nicolas Rubinstein. Nine-year-old Vladimir made his debut in Warsaw at one of the concerts showcasing Lebedeva-Getsevich’s pupils. As a youth, Sofronitsky was noticed by the director of the St Petersburg Conservatory, Alexander Glazunov, who sent him to study with Polish pianist Aleksander Michałowski. When Sofronitsky’s family returned to St Petersburg in 1913 he continued to study with Michałowski by commuting to Warsaw every month until the outbreak of World War I. He then studied for a year with Leonid Shchedrin before entering the Petrograd (St Petersburg) Conservatory, where he studied piano with Leonid Nikolayev and composition with Maximillian Steinberg, a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov. His fellow pupils in Nikolaev’s class included Dmitri Shostakovich and Maria Yudina and other pupils at the Conservatory at this time included Vladimir Horowitz and Simon Barere, with whom Sofronitsky played two-piano recitals.
Although he had played in public in Warsaw as a child, Sofronitsky began his adult concert career in 1919 whilst still a student and the following year married class-mate Elena Scriabina, the daughter of Alexander Scriabin. A son was born a year later, to whom Glazunov became godfather. In the year of his marriage, Sofronitsky gave his first recital solely of the music of Alexander Scriabin to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the composer’s death and played his Piano Concerto at his graduation concert. In 1922 Sofronitsky played the piano part in a performance of Scriabin’s Prometheus conducted by Nikolai Malko.
During the 1920s Sofronitsky gave a large number of concerts in Russia, and in 1928 he and his wife visited Warsaw on their way to Paris where they spent two years, becoming friendly with Sergei Prokofiev and Nikolai Medtner. Sofronitsky returned to Leningrad in 1930 but had by now separated from his wife. The following years were spent broadening his already wide repertoire considerably. Sofronitsky’s name would forever be linked with Scriabin, but he was now playing the Viennese classics, Baroque music, works by Schumann and music of the composers he had met in France. In the 1937–1938 season Sofronitsky gave a series of twelve recitals encompassing the history of keyboard music from Buxtehude to Shostakovich. Nothing had been heard like it in Russia since the great days of Anton Rubinstein’s famous Historic Recitals.
Because Sofronistky did not bow to Soviet officialdom, he was not allowed to leave the country, and therefore was not able to play abroad. He had a post at the Moscow Conservatory from 1943 until his death, but during this time he gave numerous concerts at the Moscow Conservatory and Scriabin Museum. In 1942 Sofronitsky was evacuated from Leningrad to Moscow where he lived with his estranged wife and children. He performed at the Potsdam Conference of the victorious Allied powers in 1945, and in 1949 gave five recitals of Chopin’s works on consecutive nights in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory to mark the centenary year of the Polish composer’s death. In 1953, to mark the 125th centenary of Schubert’s death, Sofronitsky gave a recital devoted to the Viennese composer’s works.
Sofronitsky’s health had deteriorated as a result of a heart condition and the privations he had experienced during World War II. In 1954 he gave his last performance in Leningrad and the following year his last in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. During the last few years of his life Sofronitsky gave concerts in the more intimate surroundings of the Scriabin Museum and Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. During 1957 he was too ill to perform, but was back on stage the following year; however 1959 saw him bed-ridden again and cancer was diagnosed. Knowing that time was short for him, Sofronitsky played nine recitals in ten weeks from October to December 1959. It is often reported that in his final years Sofronitsky became addicted to drugs and alcohol, but little or no evidence has been supplied to support this. He was only sixty when he died.
A solitary figure, Sofronitsky hated teaching at the Moscow Conservatory and rarely became close to his associates. Audiences at his concerts would often perceive some kind of revelation or magic in his performances, particularly in the music of Scriabin. He was undoubtedly one of the greatest of Russian pianists, and it was only his inability to perform in the West and his death at a comparatively early age that prevented his name gaining the recognition it deserved.
Sofronistky made his first commercial recordings in June 1937, but most of his recordings from the 1950s and 1960s come from live performances. Although there are recordings of major works such as Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in C minor Op. 111, Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor, Schumann’s Carnaval Op. 9, Études Symphoniques Op. 13, Fantasie Op. 17, Kreisleriana Op. 16 and Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B flat D. 960, the majority of the recordings are of Scriabin: all of the sonatas (except No. 7) and many of the short pieces. Melodya in Russia planned to issue Sofronitsky’s complete recordings in twelve boxes of around six LPs each starting in 1980, but only Volumes 6–10 and Volume 12 were ever issued. However, Denon in Japan have released seventeen compact discs of Sofronitsky’s recordings, including the early discs from the 1930s and 1940s; but unfortunately, these compact discs were not available outside Japan. Other companies have issued Sofronitsky’s recordings on compact disc, including the now defunct Arlecchino whose discs were transferred from old Melodya LPs. Their compact disc of Sofronitsky playing Liszt transcriptions of Schubert songs shows the pianist in some of his greatest performances of smaller-scale works, where he carries on the Russian tradition of playing these pieces that has continued with Lazar Berman, Evgeny Kissin and Arcadi Volodos.
In 1995 Sofronitsky appeared as Volume 5 of BMG’s Russian Piano School in recordings from 1946, 1953 and 1960 which include a performance of Schumann’s Piano Sonata No. 1 in F sharp minor Op. 11. Sofronitsky also appeared in Philips’s Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century Series, with a disc of Chopin and a disc of Scriabin including the justly famous studio recording of Vers la flamme Op. 72 from 1959. In Chopin, Sofronitsky was better suited to the smaller works: the mazurkas, nocturnes, and the slower waltzes. His recordings of the Waltzes Op. 69 No. 1 in A flat and Op. 70 No. 2 in F minor seem to convey a world of melancholy. He did not record the larger works of Chopin, such as the piano sonatas or piano concertos.
In the late 1990s a Russian company, Vista Vera, issued two compact discs of Sofronitsky: one of Scriabin from live recitals in 1960, the other of Schumann. This Schumann disc contains a stunning version of Kreisleriana Op. 16 from a studio recording of 1952, and a live Carnaval Op. 9 from 1959. A swift version of the Arabesque Op. 18 and Des Abends from Fantasiestücke Op. 12 complete this excellent compilation of Sofronitsky playing Schumann.
Live recordings of Sofronitsky, recently discovered in the archives of the Moscow Conservatory, have been issued on the Conservatory’s own label. A complete recital from October 1952 includes a violent performance of Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’ Sonata Op. 57, Schumann’s Carnaval Op. 9 and some Rachmaninov and Prokofiev. The other disc, of a recital from November 1951, includes Mozart’s Fantasia in C minor K. 396, Schumann’s Fantasie Op. 17 and Liszt’s ‘Dante’ Sonata. Although the sound is not particularly good, the Conservatory recordings were made on tape at these early dates.
Sofonitsky has turned up on many other labels including Multisonic, Le Chant du Monde and, in 2002, on Prometheus Editions where recordings of private lessons given to pupil Pavel Lobanov were issued along with private recordings of Sofronitsky playing at home in 1954.
One of the great pianists, Sofronitsky would have had a far more prominent career if he had been able to leave Russia and play in the West. As it is, we must be thankful for the many recordings of his studio and live performances that have survived from Russia. He was a pianist who could excel in the music of many major composers, particularly Schubert, Schumann and Liszt, and he was the greatest interpreter of Scriabin in the twentieth century.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).
Role: Classical Artist