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Vladimir Sofronitsky (Piano)

Born: May 8, 1901 - St. Petersburg, Russia
Died: August 26, 1961 - Moscow, Russia

The eminent Russian pianist and teacher, Vladimir Vladimirovich Sofronitsky [Sofronitzky, Sofronitskij], was born to a professor of mathematics and physics father and a mother who was relative of the portrait painter Vladimir Borovikovsky. from an artistic family. Sofronitsky and his twin sister Vera were the youngest of six children. In 1903 his family moved to Warsaw, where he started piano lessons with Anna Lebedeva-Getcevich (a student of Nikolai Rubinstein), and later (from age 9) with Aleksander Michałowski. 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, the composer 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 from 1916 to 1921 - piano with Leonid Nikolayev and composition with Maximillian Steinberg, a pupil of Nikolai 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. Sofronitsky was also acclaimed as an outstanding pianist by the musicologist and critic Alexander Ossovsky.

In 1917 Vladimir Sofronitsky met Elena Scriabina, who was also among his classmates at the Petrograd Conservatory and the eldest daughter of the deceased Alexander Scriabin. Although he had played in public in Warsaw as a child, Vladimir Sofronitsky began his adult concert career in 1919 whilst still a student and the following year (1920) married Elena Scriabina. A son was born a year later, to whom Glazunov became godfather. While he had already divulged a sympathy for the piano music of the recently deceased mystic composer - as attested by Maria Yudina - he now had a greater intellectual and emotional connection to Scriabin's works through his wife and through the Scriabin in-laws. In the year of his marriage, Sofronitsky gave his first recital solely of the music of 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 1920’s Vladimir 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. Because he did not bow to Soviet officialdom, he was not allowed to leave the country, and therefore was not able to play abroad. He only appeared in the West on one occasion, when he was suddenly put on an airplane and sent by Stalin to play for the allied leaders at the Potsdam conference in 1945.

The 1930’s were spent broadening his already wide repertoire considerably. Vladimir Sofronitsky’s name would forever be linked with Scriabin, but he was now playing the Viennese classics, Baroque music, works by Robert Schumann and music of the composers he had met in France. In the 1937-1938 season he gave a series of twelve recitals encompassing the history of keyboard music from Dietrich Buxtehude to Dmitri Shostakovich. Nothing had been heard like it in Russia since the great days of Anton Rubinstein’s famous Historic Recitals.

In 1936 Vladimir Sofronitsky became a Professor at the Leningrad Conservatory. At the beginning of World War II he was trapped in Leningrad, where on December 12, 1941 he played a concert at -3C, wearing gloves with the fingers cut off: “But how I played!” In April 1942 he was evacuated via the “Air Bridge” from starving Leningrad, and brought to Moscow. In 1943 he became a professor at the Moscow Conservatory, where he met and later married his student, Valentina Duschinova (Sofronitzki). He gave numerous concerts in Moscow at the Moscow Conservatory and Scriabin Museum, and, after the war, in Leningrad, becoming widely regarded as the best pianist in Russia. Among his many performances, of special note are the Frédéric Chopin and Schubert cycles. In 1949 he gave five recitals of F. 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. Sofronitzki was a highly inspired performer, and each of his performances was regarded as a unique event. He hated recordings and regarded them as “my corpses”, nevertheless his live recordings give a sense of his astonishing musical power.

A solitary figure, Vladimir Sofronitsky hated teaching at the Moscow Conservatory and rarely became close to his associates. He lived in a private world of music and avoided intrigues. Simple and sensitive as a child, he spent a secluded life among his closest friends. 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. Despite his attitude of non-participation - and thus only for his music performances - he was awarded the highest decoration in Russia: The Order of Lenin. His 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. His last year of concert activity was 1960. His final performance took place on January 9, 1961, in the Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. 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 died on August 29, 1961, when he was only sixty.

Vladimir Sofronitsky made a fair number of recordings in the last two decades of his life, but a relatively small number overall compared with the titanic efforts of his younger countrymen Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels. Drawn principally to Romantic repertoire, he recorded a large number of Scriabin works and also compositions by L.v. Beethoven, Schubert, F. Chopin, Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt, Lyadov, Sergei Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, and others. Being Scriabin's posthumous son-in-law, Sofronitsky never met the composer. Nevertheless, his wife vouched that the pianist was the most authentic interpreter of her late father's works. Indeed, his Scriabin recordings are considered by many to be unsurpassed. The other composer with whom Sofronitsky had the greatest affinity is Frédéric Chopin. He once told an interviewer: "A love for F. Chopin has followed me through the course of my entire life." Beyond F. Chopin and Scriabin, Sofronitsky had a wide repertoire spanning major composers from J.S. Bach to Nikolai Medtner and reaching as far as the works of Boris Goltz (1913-1942), with a focus on 19th-century Romantic composers and early 20th-century Russians.

In his time Vladimir Sofronitsky was considered to be the greatest pianist in Russia, a "living legend". Every Sofronitzki recital was a spiritual event for the public. He was a true poet of the piano, full of improvisatory spirit and inspiration. He had an allencompassing technique and his playing embodied a wide range of colours and textures, but these things could be said about many firstrate pianists. When at his best Sofronitzki's musicmaking seemed to transcend the bounds of normal expression and enter a new realm in which his every emotion would project from within the music and onto his audience. It is this indefinable spirituality of his playing that sets him apart. He was held in the highest esteem by his colleagues, including Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels and Heinrich Neuhaus. He was a friend of Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich, and had a profound influence upon many Russian musicians, from Vladimir Horowitz to Evgeny Kissin. When Sviatoslav Richter and Sofronitzki drank a toast to seal their friendship, Sofronitzki proclaimed Sviatoslav Richter a genius; Sviatoslav Richter's immediate response was to call Sofronitzki a God. Emil Gilels, upon hearing of Sofronitzki's death, is reputed to have said "the greatest pianist in the world has died."


As he never performed or recorded outside Russia after his tour in France in 1929, Vladimir Sofronitsky’s art remained unknown to the Western public until recent years, when some of his recordings started to appear. Unfortunately, his recordings have not been issued systematically in the West.

Vladimir Sofronistky made his first commercial recordings in June 1937, but most of his recordings from the 1950’s and 1960’s come from live performances. Although there are recordings of major works such as L.v. Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in C minor Op. 111, Franz Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor, Robert 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. Melodiya in Russia planned to issue Sofronitsky’s complete recordings in 12 boxes of around 6 LP’s each starting in 1980, but only Vols. 6-10 and Vol. 12 were ever issued. However, Denon in Japan have released 17 CD’s of Sofronitsky’s recordings, including the early discs from the 1930’s and 1940’s; 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 Melodiya LP’s. Their compact disc of Sofronitsky playing F. 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 Robert 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 F. Chopin and a disc of Scriabin including the justly famous studio recording of Vers la flamme Op. 72 from 1959. In F. 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 F. Chopin, such as the piano sonatas or piano concertos.

In the late 1990’s a Russian company, Vista Vera, issued two compact discs of Sofronitsky: one of Scriabin from live recitals in 1960, the other of Robert Schumann. This Robert 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 Robert 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 L.v. Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’ Sonata Op. 57, Robert Schumann’s Carnaval Op. 9 and some Sergei Rachmaninov and Prokofiev. The other disc, of a recital from November 1951, includes W.A. Mozart’s Fantasia in C minor K. 396, Robert Schumann’s Fantasie Op. 17 and F. 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, Robert Schumann and F. Liszt, and he was the greatest interpreter of Scriabin in the 20th century.

Source: Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of 20th Century Classical Musicians (1997); Wikipedia Website (December 2011); Vladimir Sofronitsky Homepage; Naxos Website
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (February 2011)

Vladimir Sofronitsky: Short Biography | Recordings of Instrumental Works

Links to other Sites

Vladimir Sofronitsky (Wikipedia)
Vladimir Sofronitsky Homepage [English/Russian]
Vladmir Sofronitsy - Biography (Naxos)
Maria Yudina's recollection on Sofronitsky

Vladimir Sofronitsky Tribute - Discography
Denon Classics' Russian releases [Japanese]
A Discography of Vladimir Sofronitzky

Biographies of Performers: Main Page | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z
Explanation | Acronyms | Missing Biographies | The Sad Corner


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