Vladimir Sofronitsky

An Interview with Vladimir Sofronitsky

(conducted by A. Vitsinsky on October 28, 1945)

[Note: This interview was taken as part of a large project by Alexander Vitsinsky to interview a number of Soviet pianists on questions related to the performing art.]

A preface by A. Vitsinksy

The record of my conversation with V. V. Sofronitsky has its own, quite unusual history, and it? s necessary to understand that history if the interview itself is to be properly understood.

A man of highly complex and difficult character, V. V. Sofronitsky refused, and in no uncertain terms, my original request for an interview. He said he found it absolutely impossible to discuss the questions proposed.

Without losing hope I repeated my request from time to time, supporting it with my previous successful experience interviewing our other great pianists (Igumnov, Flier, Gilels), who agreed without hesitation to discuss the many aspects of the performer? s work that are accessible to self-observation and expressible in words.

Slowly, Sofronitsky? s objections became less and less certain and, finally, he said to me: «If only you would invite us [himself and his second wife, V. N. Dushinova] and we could meet normally, for dinner or a cup of tea, and chat, then maybe I could tell you something.

Such an approach to the situation would not have surprised anyone who knew Sofronitsky: he had no patience for any official business atmosphere, in which he tended to become tight and retreat into his shell. On the other hand, he liked meeting people, was open, friendly and sincere. Still, he could suddenly flare up when he encountered rudeness, vulgarity and banality. Except for such moments he was delicately tactful and attentively polite with all, starting with his students, and he enjoyed humor and joking.

Sofronitsky knew me quite well. He was present at my recital in the Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatory in the fall of 1942, and starting in 1943 I had been an assistant with several students in his greatly increased class (my main job was as an associate professor in the piano section of the Musical Education department where I was temporarily section chairman). We met in the apartment of V. A. Arkhangelsky where the student classes took place at the time.

Everything was organized as Vladimir Vladimirovich had suggested: we gathered at the dinner table, in the freest atmosphere. Still, the conversation turned out to be very difficult and not nearly as complete as hoped. Several times Sofronitsky changed the subject to outside topics, giving himself a break from an unpleasant task. Sometimes he would not answer for a long time, and were it not for the saving interdictions of Dushinova, it is unclear how the conversation would have continued.

Still, despite all these shortcomings, the conversation contains interesting statements that provide additional strokes for the portrait of Sofronitsky. Some thoughts attract our attention in that they were repeated in later years almost identically and were therefore of constant value to him. For instance, his metaphoric statement on the relative value of the emotional and intellectual aspects of the performing art. (Later, in 1958, during the first Tchaikovsky competition, Sofronitsky said about Cliburn: «True great art is like hot boiling lava, covered above by seven layers of armor! His emotional heat is wonderful but he is still missing about five layers of armor.»)

We encounter for the first time his acknowledgment of a tendency, even as a child, to listen to music internally, without an instrument, «seeking in it the necessary and finding it.» Isn? t it this ability to freely evoke inner sound images, later developed to perfection-the ability to vary the internal performance in search of expression-that makes for the permanent newness of Sofronitksy? s interpretations and ideas?

He spent no less time on this inner work than he did at the instrument. According to his family, the work went on almost constantly. Born in the inner creative laboratory, on the stage the performance took on an improvisational character as if created on the spur of the moment.

At first glance Sofronitsky? s description of his studies with the outstanding piano teachers A. Michalowski and L. V. Nikolayev may seem puzzling.

As one can gather from his short statement, the young Sofronitsky was, in his studies with Michalowski, mistakenly eased out of the more purely technical exercises. And there was a certain lack of appreciation for his «lofty» demands on the repertoire.

Later, during the years of more mature study with Nikolayev, Sofronitsky did not feel the hand of a truly involved teacher guiding his artistic development.

Both are, nonetheless, teachers to whom he remained personally attached and respectful.

Looking at only the critical side of his statements regarding Nikolayev, one should stress that they are not random and were repeated often. There are at least three analogous statements about his studies with Nikolayev in Recollections of Sofronitsky, made by multiple authors. The essence is: too little was taught and too much was praised. And then, quite concretely: «He should have made us learn all the Beethoven sonatas and Bach fugues-how necessary that was. And I was constantly told: ‘How wonderfully you play, Vovochka, how good you are?.»(Recollections of Sofronitsky, p. 326)

The purely subjective nature of these remarks is obvious and unquestionable. They are typical examples of the «fearless truthfulness and total unexpectedness of many of his statements.» (From the memoirs of his son, A. V. Sofronitsky: «One could disagree with him but it was impossible not to believe him.»)

For his part, Nikolayev? s position as a teacher is made clear by the caliber of his students. At the same time as Sofronitsky, in the spring of 1921, another student totally unusual in her originality and artistic potential was graduating from Nikolayev? s class in the Petrograd conservatory-Maria Yudina. And in order to formally guide a student with Sofronitsky? s uniquely original artistic gift, one would quite likely have had to sacrifice pedagogical tact, which was obviously not something Nikolayev was willing to do, and probably he was quite right.

Sofronitsky, with his sensitivity, was deeply disturbed by the tiniest failures in his performances. This was perhaps the reason Nikolayev «over-praised» him-encouraging artistic initiative and confidence.

A. V.

The text of the interview

A. V. Vitsinsky: Have you, Vladimir Vladimirovich, recently learned any works for the first time?

Vladimir Sofronitsky: For my last recitals (October 16 and 23, 1946) I relearned Beethoven? s sonata «Les Adieux,» No. 26 in E flat (Op. 81a). I learned it in two weeks and played it unsuccessfully at the first recital: the sonata was not ready, did not mature, what came out was not what I wanted.... Before the second recital I took a break from it, did not play it at all, and it seems to me that it came out quite well.

A. V.: Can you tell me how you worked on the sonata-your initial approach to the piece?

V. S. It is hard to describe, impossible....

V. Dushinova: I may, if you wish, tell you how Vladimir Vladimirovich works on new pieces, and also how he reviews the old ones. If something is not right in my observations, Vladimir Vladimirovich will correct me.

A. V. Yes, of course, unless he objects.

V. D. Vladimir Vladimirovich usually takes a fragment of the work, typically just from the beginning of the piece, and learns this episode, works on it until it comes out exactly as he wants it. Then he takes the next, learns it, and so on. Mainly, it seems to me that he works from the beginning to the end on each segment until he achieves the result.

A. V. What would you say about this, Vladimir Vladimirovich?

V. S. It seems so from the outside. Though in the sonata I started working not from the beginning but from the most difficult spot in the first movement [plays]. It is a very difficult place technically and I wanted to master it from the start. But most crucial is to find the heart of each piece or each sonata movement, feel its basic essence, culmination, and then-the same in each construction, every phrase. I played badly before, only in recent years have I come to understand-better and better-how to play. And if I am alive in several years then I will really start to play. One has to learn to hear oneself and that is very difficult. This is not a posture-I am speaking with absolute sincerity. First of all, a performance requires a will. A will-meaning to want a lot, to want more than you have now, more than you can give. For me the entire effort is strengthening the will. Here is all: rhythm, sound, emotion. Rhythm should be soulful. The whole piece should live, breathe, move as protoplasm. I play-and one part is alive, full of breath, and another part nearby may be dead because the live rhythmic flow is broken. Rachmaninoff, for instance, could create a rhythmic pulse that was unfailingly alive. He had the enormous artistic will of a genius. He had a greater will than any of the modern pianists. The same with Anton Rubinstein. Bulow played very cleanly and Rubinstein sloppily, but two or three dirty notes would damage Bulow? s playing more than fistfuls of them would damage Rubinstein? s. And why? Because Rubinstein had an enormous will. A will for hearing, for rhythmic life. And another point, most important: the more emotionally you play, the better, but this emotionality should be hidden, hidden as in a shell. When I come on stage now, I have «seven shells» under my tuxedo, and despite this I feel naked. So, I need fourteen shells. I have to wish to play so well, live so fully, as to die and still feel as if I have not played. I have nothing to do with this. Some special calm should prevail when you rise from the piano-as if somebody else had played.

A. V. How does your work at home proceed, what does it consist of, what is the usual order of study?

V. S. Now three hours are quite enough for me. But this does not mean that I don? t work more. My work may continue without the instrument, I may be talking to people, listening to them, answering quite reasonably, but work continues unceasingly inside. I was considered lazy when I was a boy-they did not understand that after playing a little on the piano and lying on the sofa afterward, I continued to work intensively inside, listening to the music, looking for the necessity and finding it.

A. V. What are you imagining then-the sound image or something else?

V. D. Vladimir Vladimirovich often says that during this time he imagines himself playing the piano in the Grand Hall of the Conservatory, for instance. As for practicing, there are days when Vladimir Vladimirovich sits at the piano almost non-stop for twelve hours, and there are days when he does not touch the piano at all.

V. S. I have to play eight programs a year. This is not at all the case for pianists abroad. Rachmaninoff prepared two programs a year. He learned the program for two months, then rested for a month from it, playing only exercises, and then went on stage without reviewing the program. And this is Rachmaninoff for whom learning a piece took no effort. He told me once that, for instance, he spent two hours on a Scriabin etude from Op. 42 and did not learn it. You understand-he was surprised! Sometimes I practice on the piano extensively, but there have been cases when I worked on pieces for a long time and then failed at the recital in exactly those pieces, while the others, which I did not review at all, I played wonderfully. This has sometimes happened.

V. D. Before a recital, Vladimir Vladimirovich works mostly on the first work of the program. Sometimes he works essentially on it alone.

V. S. This is because if the first piece does not come out right then my spirits are low and I do not want to play anymore, everything is spoiled.

A. V. Maybe you can tell us about the beginning of your musical life?

V. S. Nobody truly taught me. L. V. Nikolayev is a marvelous musician but he is no pedagogue. He almost never intervened in my studies. He would assign, for instance, Schumann? s «Carnaval» to me. A week later I would come to class and play the «Carnaval.» Usually there would be a lot of people in the class. After the performance Nikolayev would come to me, shake my hand, thank me and assign another piece. That? s what happened most of the time. I am very grateful to him for a great exposure to the musical literature-we often played four hands, played through all kinds of compositions, symphonic and chamber-but I did not feel pedagogical guidance from him, I learned from myself. I remember well how I graduated from the conservatory. I was then 18 and I played with special inspiration. One can play like that only once. It is unforgettable. I played Beethoven? s Sonata Op. 111, Schumann? s Fantasy in C, Liszt? s sonata, Chopin? s Prelude No. 24 in d-minor. When I finished playing and went backstage, an old lady, a teacher at the conservatory, ran to me and told me that Glazunov-he was then the czar and God for me in music-was openly crying during the recital. Afterward he visited me and mumbled, in a strict and indifferent manner, in his deep voice: «So, my friend, why did you take that F-flat in the repeat, when it is marked simply F?» Before Nikolayev I studied with Michalowski in Warsaw. The by-now very famous Michalowski, who was later the chairman of the jury in the Chopin competitions. I liked him very much as a person, was very attached to him from childhood onwards, but his lessons did not inspire. They were not interesting. Michalowski was a Moscheles student, and Moscheles was a Beethoven student, so I may consider myself Beethoven? s great-grandson. When I was ten, in 1912, my father was transferred to St. Petersburg and my mother took me every month to Warsaw to see Michalowski until the war started, and then the trips ceased. After that I entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Before Michalowski, for about a year and a half, starting at about seven, I studied with the mother of the pianist Buyuckli. She had a very emotional attitude toward music. My studies, however, had begun even before that-just for a few months-with the composer Ruzicki, the father of the well-known Polish pianist. I exhibited perfect pitch very early. But I think perfect pitch only hinders a performing pianist. When you hear the whole text pitch-wise, I think that this complete determinacy makes it harder to feel the music, distracts somehow.

A. V. Still, how does the preparation of a program for recital proceed?

V. S. When I work on a piece, even an old one, review it for a recital-I take the score and start work from scratch, as if learning and creating the piece anew. I cannot do it any other way, and I believe that all artists should do this. I always find something new in the composition. My critics rebuke me that I have nothing determined and fixed, nothing stable in performing even the same piece. They do not understand that I have to justify the performance internally for myself, must hear and feel something new, different from the past. What is wrong with that? They say that I may play well by chance, or badly-also by chance. One cannot play well by chance, one can only play badly by chance.

A. V. Do you like to improvise, did you improvise earlier as a child?

V. S. I liked to improvise as a child. Even at a recital, after playing the prepared pieces I would be given a theme and I would improvise on it. When I was ten I was already composing. I still have many of the compositions. By the age of thirteen I had already written a number of fugues. My teacher spent a lot of time on polyphonic work and I myself liked composing fugues. Then I started to write an opera on Ibsen? s «Catilina.» The overture and the first act were written. My father wrote the libretto. I also wrote a quartet and piano variations. Much of what was written in my youth has not been preserved. Gradually, in the years of maturity, I lost the improvisatory gift, and I also stopped composing completely.... Yesterday I performed for a recording. You know, it is very useful to listen to yourself on record. It gives a performer a great deal.

Translated by Stephen Emerson and Lenya Ryzhik