Partita in E minor, BWV830 Bach trans. Brahms
Chaconne (Partita for unnacompanied violin in D minor, BWV1004) Beethoven
Sonata in B flat, Op.22
Sonata in C minor, Op.111
Grigory Sokolov (piano)
Saturday, January 17, 2004 Wigmore Hall, London
Reviewed by Ying Chang
Nothing I could write would do justice to this recital. In music firmly at the heart of classical music, intellectually taxing and emotionally rich, Sokolov showed us, as art should, that the most familiar and canonical pieces can be ever-fresh, and renewed in each performance.
I am too young to have heard recitals by Gilels, Richter, Haskil, Lipatti or Kempff when in their prime; the expression Golden Age is at best a term for me, gleaned from historic recordings and second-hand reports, and, at worst, a sentimental construct. Yet, I hear in Sokolovs playing the conviction and certainty of a different time, an absolute musicality whose sureness of approach is so rare today, and which manages to combine immense strength of character and total service to the music itself.
Yes, Sokolovs interpretations, notably of Bach, are Romantic, individual. Yes, he takes risks, his playing is constantly surprising an unusually stately tempo for the Minuet of Op.22, fabulously quiet pianissimos for the melodic line of the Partitas Sarabande, and gigantic weight of tone in Brahmss left-hand transcription. But these are virtues, evidence that the performer has managed to strike a balance between fidelity to each composers intentions, and letting the listener hear something new. There is no word to describe Sokolovs success in striking this balance perfectly, in an intuitive sense of originality that must be born of long practice, and in having a technical mastery that allows every pianistic effect, yet which never obtrudes into our apprehension of the composers soul.
A thin line separates the wayward, mannered performance from the truly original, imaginative one. Modern performers tend to err on the side of conformity or maybe todays demands for replicable perfection enjoin caution. Those who strive to be different are almost invariably accused of contrivance or artificiality. It takes therefore a Sokolov, or should I say Sokolov himself, since sadly no other pianist alive comes to mind, someone with Richters strength of character, and the poetic musicality of a Lipatti, to impose himself on the music while remaining utterly the composers servant. Theres a convention that every review must contain some adverse criticism, to demonstrate the critics detachment and attentiveness. I can think of nothing, beyond wrong notes, which detracted from this recitals power.
As for analytical comments in a recital of miracles, the middle movements of Op.22 were perhaps the most extraordinary, elevating a relatively obscure sonata into poise and greatness. Op.111 is of course one of the most monumental of piano works; here Sokolov had no need to show his talent as a miniaturist, so evident in the six encores. The opening movement was suitably titanic, and the second movement meditative and spiritual; one imagines exactly as Beethoven intended. In the encores, ranging from Chopin to French Baroque, Sokolov showed his ability to subsume his musicality into the soundworld and mentality of any composer, to refract his universality through the prism of any music, at will.
If what you seek from music and from a pianist are predominantly modern values technical exactness, a winning stage manner, slick presentation, media and marketing attractiveness, even academic dedication Sokolov is NOT for you. Is this why, despite Sokolovs substantial and devoted following, he has not attained the publicity and status of the most successful modern artists? The hall was full, but there seemed few critics and representatives from industry factions and none of Sokolovs CDs were available for sale, nor indeed does he record for one of the major labels.
If, on the other hand, you listen to music to apprehend an elevated, even transcendental means of communication, to gain an illumination into the human condition that is best available through the profundities of art, Sokolov IS for you. Indisputably, he is the greatest living pianist. No praise is too high for him.