Sofronitsky! The name reawakened an eternal legend in the hearts of many ardent admirers of a unique musician’s work. Few artists have been the object of such enthusiastic, almost fanatical devotion. Each facet of his creative face - the tragic force of inspiration and the depth of philosophical artistic perception, the spontaneous fulfillment of intellectual principles and the sensation of striving toward ever newer shores, the profound acuteness and subjectivity of his expression and the merging of a distinct, heartfelt truth with an inexplicable spiritual beauty all of these things, in a strange way, expanded the outer limits of the very notion of piano playing. Faithfully versed in the rituals of his “sacred trade,” Sofronitsky was, essentially, not so much an interpreter as an artist-creator, on a par with the most distinguished composers, poets, painters. The goals of his artistry reached back to the foundation of existence of the human spirit, from which creative thinkers through the ages have freely gathered their most intimate, genuine, and intensely personal insights.
The powerful and intoxicating elements within Sofronitsky manifested themselves in extraordinary ways: freakishly, unevenly, at times unexpectedly. His was an ongoing conflict between impetuous internal desire and the embodiment of a thoroughly disciplined and flexible aesthetic. Concealed within the original seed of his art was an explosiveness, an exceptionally sharp, disturbed, and arousing force which distinguished his craft from that of countless others. The following words were once used to describe him: “Truly great art which is to say: scorching, boiling lava, through seven layers of armor plating!”
In his music, as in his identity, there occurred a welding together of opposites: elegance, fragility, subtlety, and an unquestionably Scriabinesque freedom ignorant of all psychological barriers, or the sensitive, easily wounded, unprotected surface which could as easily be transformed into the source of profound Herculean strength. His iron will, his resiliency of thinking, his uncommon sense of harmony, proportion, and grand-scale aspiration toward inner majesty with the years these traits became even more keen and more defined. Having taken on itself the weight of an enormous tragic charge, his self-limitation intensified, grew noticeably starker. He combined a suppressed, concentrated, and controlled energy, subordinating all elements save those necessary to its own central utterance, with fervid lyricism and a terse, highly polished expressivity. His art was at once ideal and complex in its own exalted beauty. Heinrich Neuhaus wrote:
“His playing evoked a particular, heightened feeling of beauty comparable to the beauty and fragrance of the first spring flowers lilies of the valley or lilacs which move not only in and of themselves but also revive the memory of a sensation experienced many times, always reliving and examining it anew. Sometimes this beauty acquires with Sofronitsky the arabesque-like contours of orchids of the frosty patterns on the windowpane in the bitter cold of January, the fantastic quality of the northern lights. One always finds in his playing the mark of something unusual, at times almost supernatural, mysterious and inexplicable, masterfully drawing one toward itself. His refinement, unable to tolerate anything crude, shrill, insistent, overly sensual, or too straightforward, popular, or ‘traditional’ (even in the best sense of the word), did not and does not have anything in common with the painfully cloying over-refinement of the artist who has turned his back on life and life’s truth. No, this ‘refinement’ was one of the most perfect outward displays of art without which it could never attain its realization.”
Sofronitsky’s inimitable, pointedly individual qualities were revealed first and foremost in his means of extracting a sound, that is, within the pianist’s hand, but also in many other ways, such as in the character of his phrasing and in the distinct and specifically Sofronitskian manner of his speech-like articulation at the piano. These traits were built not on the false mimicry of originality but on the basis of the most sincere, complete, and spontaneous impulses.
Sofronitsky always remained quite apart from the rest of the world. He joined an unparalleled musical gift with an exceptional overall mental organization. Before all else, however, he was a very rich human being with a wonderfully open soul, unfathomable integrity and simplicity.
Vladimir Vladimirovich Sofronitsky, the son of a physics teacher, was born on 8 May 1901 in St. Petersburg. The mother of the future pianist came from the lineage of the renowned painter V. L. Borovikovsky and the poet L. I. Borovikovsky. In 1903 the family moved to Warsaw, where the boy began his piano studies with Anna Vasilievna Lebedeva-Oetsovich, mother of the noted pianist Vsevolod Buyukli and a conservatory graduate of the class of Nikolai Rubinstein. A soiree given by her pupils in 1910 was the occasion of Sofronitsky’s first public performance, and at once be was marked by critical acclaim. In the same year, on the advice of A. K. Glazunov (who had already shown an interest in the young musician), he began to study with Alexander Michalowski, a Polish pianist well-known for his interpretations of Chopin. In 1913 the family returned to St. Petersburg, but still during the course of that year the boy was sent monthly to Warsaw for the continuation of his lessons. The First World War interrupted these journeys. Over the next two years he developed more or less independently, continuing only under the supervision of the pianist and composer L. A. Shchedrin. In 1916 Sofronitsky enrolled in the class of one of the best teachers at the Petrograd Conservatory, L. V. Nikolayev, at the same time studying composition with Maximilian O. Steinberg, a disciple [and son-in-law] of Rimsky-Korsakov. In 1919 he gave his first solo concert, and in 1921 be graduated with honors from the Conservatory. Shortly afterward be began an intensive concert career. His programs were composed predominantly of the output of the Romantic composers Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Medtner, Scriabin. By this time Sofronitsky had already turned his attention in particular to the performance of Scriabin, an area in which be was to have no equal.
Gradually the pianist’s fame grew; he toured to Moscow, Saratov, Odessa, he performed with Persimfans [conductorless orchestra], his repertoire quickly broadened. Critical notices hailed the young artist with universal enthusiasm. Many musicians (Heinrich Neuhaus, Egon Petri, Vladimir Horowitz, and others) extolled the pianist’s uniqueness and immeasurable artistic gifts. Among the number of continual visitors at his concerts during these years, one could spot K. Igumnov, H. Neuhaus, P. Konchalovsky, K. Chukovsky, and V. Meyerhold, who had dedicated to Sofronitsky his first performance of Pique Dame and had presented him with a photograph inscribed: “To Vladimir Vladimirovich Sofronitsky, who astounded me at his concert of 2 December 1927 with the fact that he is in music both a thinker and a poet.”
In 1928, Sofronitsky all but went abroad for two years. First, a short stop in Warsaw, the city of his childhood, where he gave an enormously successful concert and saw his old teacher Michalowski then, Paris. Not long before his arrival in Paris, Glazunov had personally recommended the unknown artist to the French public, billing him as “one of the most splendid young Russian pianists.” Indeed, his first concerts there (as well as all those subsequent) met with great success. “We must note the remarkable debut of M. Sofronitsky,” wrote the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro. “His two concerts displayed a very solid technique and, what is more rare, a profoundly musical nature.”
Sofronitsky heard a multitude of great musicians in Paris. He attended the concerts of Sergei Rachmaninoff, remembering them in every detail until the end of his life. He heard the great Fyodor Chaliapin. He was swept away by the playing of Gieseking, Medtner and Prokofiev, Orlov and Horowitz, Borovsky and Paderewski, Rubinstein and Godowsky, Casadesus and Landowska, Heifetz, and Elman this is a partial list of the pianist’s musical impressions. (Six years later another name, and perhaps the most brilliant, would be added to it: Alfred Cortot. Cortot and Neuhaus were very likely the closest to him of all his musical entourage.) Sofronitsky played several times for Medtner and profited from his advice and instruction. He grasped from Medtner’s own words an assortment of ideas about sound production and later, with admiration, spoke of the unique Medtnerian sense of rhythm. Not without Medtner’s influence did his interpretations of various individual works unfold (for example, Beethoven’s Appassionata.) Prokofiev, who had responded to his playing with sheer delight, was extremely close to him psychologically on account of the daring innovation in his own works. The friendships that Sofronitsky had begun with these two musicians continued after his return to Russia. Sofronitsky left Paris for Leningrad at the beginning of 1930. Soon he gave several concerts. The Leningrad composer and musicologist V. Bogdanov-Berezovsky observed: “His sound was always rich with colors and nuances. Even more boundless was his technical freedom. But everything was accomplished through conscious intellectual monitoring. His attention to the structural aspect of the music, to the precision and firmness of the structural-rhythmic skeleton of a performance, was ever strengthened and intensified. Hence there soon resulted a vividly marked tendency toward monumental execution. There appeared a reserve of expression, nowhere, of course, turned into dryness, but clearly indicated through the controlled inhibition of sensual-emotional impulses. In carefully limited doses and united with the most valuable attribute of simplicity of statement, this was able and in fact bound to lead to still more depth of interpretation.”
Sofronitsky’s repertoire continued to grow significantly increasing in its number of Classic works Scarlatti, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. But the interpretations of his staple of the Romantics, played earlier, became more profound, reflective, and proportionally balanced. The artist, now in his thirtieth year, that is, the age of the mature master craftsman, consciously forged his new style, seeking, experimenting, understanding his main objective never to stop or cool off in an early ‘romantic-intuitive’ phase. Subsequently he himself commented that he had reformed many aspects of his playing in his thirties, having noted in the previous decade an “overindulgence in the chamber approach.” In essence, for Sofronitsky, his thirties presented a vast field of ‘experimental’ change in his work.
In 1936 Sofronitsky began teaching at the Leningrad Conservatory (in 1939 he received the title of professor). During the 1937-38 season he announced a huge cycle of twelve concerts comprising the best, top-ranking works from the piano literature. In the history of piano playing, only the celebrated “historical concerts” of A[nton] Rubinstein can be compared with this daring venture. Within seven months Sofronitsky played works of Buxtehude, Handel, J. S. Bach, C. P. E. Bach, Scarlatti, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Borodin, Balakirev, GIazunov, Rachmaninoff, Medtner, Scriabin, Myaskovsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Kabalevsky, Bogdanov-Berezovsky, and Goltz. The cycle’s nucleus consisted of works by Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, and Scriabin.
During the autumn of 1941 and winter of 1942, Sofronitsky saw the Siege of Leningrad. Like many of his compatriots, the artist steadfastly endured the hardships of this period. It appeared as though the relentless breath of war must surely sweep aside any thought of art. The city froze and starved. But art did not die; on the contrary, the atmosphere of heroic resistance gave new strength to many of its public figures. On 7 November 1941, Sofronitsky played in Leningrad’s Philharmonic Hall. And on 12 December his concert for the protectors of the city took place in the hall of the Pushkin Theater. “At the Pushkin Theater there were three degrees of frost,” he wrote afterwards. “The audience, the defenders of the city, sat in their fur coats. I played in gloves with the tips of the fingers cut out. But how they listened, and how I played! What treasured memories those were. When it became clear to me why I must play, I felt it was absolutely necessary for me to play. Many of the pieces which I had previously loved began to seem very small. Something greater was required, music of heroic feeling, a call to fight. It was perhaps only in these days that I fully understood and perceived the greatness of Beethoven’s Appassionata or the mighty invocatory power of the Third Sonata of Scriabin.”
In April 1942, Sofronitsky managed to reach Moscow. Not yet recovered from his condition of extreme fatigue and emaciation, the artist announced one concert after another: for his dedication, the title of Honored Art Worker of the RSFSR was conferred upon him, and in 1943 he was awarded a State Prize of the First Degree. In the same year he began to teach at the Moscow Conservatory.
At this point Sofronitsky’s art again underwent considerable development. The simultaneously tragic and heroic atmosphere of the preceding years had begun, inevitably, to tell on the artist’s sensitive nerves. His playing was ever more permeated by a simple, masculine, and rigorous strength. From this time, it seems there was a deeper intensification of his pronounced quest for the infinite truth which would permit, subsequently, a direct comparison of his art with that of the great Russian realists. On the other hand, the expressive elements of his style grew sharper and were even exaggerated. The clash between conflicting images was exposed still further. Tempi were shifted, becoming more restless and excited. Yet beneath these accentuated traits and central to them lay always Sofronitsky’s courageous, boundless will.
Igor Nikonovich (Part one of an essay, translated from the Russian by Dr. Emily White)
Two events occurred in the life of an eight-year-old Russian boy studying piano in Warsaw in 1909, both of which shaped his entire existence. In a music store, he espied a Nocturne for the Left Hand and brought the music home, excitedly writing his older sister, “I discovered a wonderful composer: Scriabinov [sic].” Vladimir Sofronitsky began hunting for all of his works, beginning what his daughter Roxanne described as “a lifelong love-affair that never ended.” At this time, he also recalled practicing piano in the home of E. S. Gerzog [Herzog], a poet and woman of letters. One day, according to his daughter, “a handsome man, a friend of hers, came in and sat by the window, scribbling into a notebook.” Others recall his having seen this man on other occasions in Warsaw, but Sofronitsky only remembered this one moment of proximity to the poet Aleksandr Blok, who wrote part or most of his Vesennii den’ proshel bez dela while Sofronitsky played. Blok later became his favored poet, yet the two never again met, for Blok died in 1920, shortly after Sofronitsky began to fully appreciate his writings.
Before World War I broke out, the family returned to St. Petersburg from Russian-occupied Poland. The boy’s parents surprised him with tickets to an upcoming solo recital by Scriabin himself. On the day of the concert, the boy developed a high fever and was kept home despite his protests. Days later, Scriabin died from blood poisoning: Sofronitsky had missed his final performance.
Portraits of his life’s guiding spirits Scriabin and Blok, hung above Sofronitsky’s piano aside a print of Chopin. During the last days of his fatal illness, he lamented to Roxanne of having neglected to include Pushkin with the others, for Sofronitsky was drawn to his poetry throughout his life. He enjoyed Dostoievsky, Chekhov, Esenin, and Pasternak whom he knew, and whose father had been close to Scriabin. At his teacher Nikolayev’s classes, he encountered Elena Alexandrovna, Scriabin’s daughter: they were married in 1920. Fluent in French and German, Elena (“Lyalya”, 1900-1990) was a great reader of Proust, knew Nina Berberova and was a close lifelong friend of Boris Pasternak, whom her father had mentored. To her, Scriabin was a remote figure, for he abandoned her family when she was young. He appeared infrequently and she retained few memories.
Scriabin’s spirit also reached Sofronitsky through Tatiana Schaborkina (1906-1986), director of the Scriabin Museum, who persuaded Sofronitsky to play semi-private concerts. By phone she would lament, “There is a heavy atmosphere and you need to remedy this!” Schaborkina felt herself to be Scriabin’s heir and acted as Sofronitsky’s guardian angel by opening the composer’s home to Sofronitsky and a discreet group of attendees. Seated before Scriabin’s piano in his music room and in any possible space throughout the house, nearly one hundred familiar and simpatico listeners eagerly received his musical offerings. Schaborkina was, in the words of Roxanne, “not Soviet, not anti-Soviet, but a-Soviet,” whereas Sofronitsky was thoroughly anti-Soviet, which had to be concealed out of necessity.
A tape recorder captured many of these evenings, which reveal a musicality free from the tension underlying his studio, radio, and concert-hall recordings. One encounters a relaxed artist on these occasions, confirmed by his daughter, who depicted his official concerts as ordeals: “We had to coax him out onto the stage to play. When we did, he would complain ‘You don’t care about me! You only care about my playing!’ And when we didn’t, ‘You don’t care about my playing!'” The sounds heard in the Scriabin Museum represented a rare experience both for him and a special audience devoted to his art, both a communion with the composer who inspired his life and an oasis from the dictatorship controlling life just beyond the door, a respite for culture without intrusions by the regime.
Listeners ought to first hear the recital in its entirety, without distraction or interruption; afterwards, one should follow selections of the works with a score in hand, for Sofronitsky carefully prepared programs such as this Scriabin evening, weighing and shaping what he sensed were subtle links and effective contrasts (such as following Vers la flamme with Fragilité) into a profound continuity and enlightened sense of narrative.