Grigory Sokolov is a unique musician. Between him and other living performers there is an abyss. There is no way to write intelligibly of how he breathes not only freshness but also a sense of infinite possibility into the most familiar repertoire. What is heard is at once completely convincing and completely surprising. Virtually every other pianist playing today would sound routine, mechanical and vain in comparison. It now seems foolish ever to have offered these others any superlatives of approbation, if measured by Sokolov.
Most pianists specialise; Sokolov plays everything with uncanny understanding of the idiom – the Viennese lilt of his Schubert, the Polish dance rhythms of the Chopin. I have heard three Sokolov recitals in three years and never the same composer twice, except in encores. Most pianists excel either at detail or structure – here, with Sokolov, it was hard to tell which was more striking: the overwhelming will that drove Sokolov’s interpretation of Schubert or the numerous felicities of phrasing. It is as if other pianists speak in monotones. Sokolov plays all music as if it is polyphonic, and thus ensures a clarity that has no parallel. Most pianists are either remarkable for touch or for technique. Sokolov can play anything without effort, but is equally as remarkable for his sound quality. The feather-light pianissimo descending arpeggios in the first and last movements of the Schubert and the delicacy in the ornaments and repeated notes of the Rameau encores were miraculous. Gilels would have been proud to hear his protégé’s ‘golden sound’ in the F sharp Impromptu or in the rich chords of the Polonaise-fantaisie.
The biggest challenge of Schubert’s A major Sonata is its extraordinary slow movement, often interpreted as a response to the composer’s impending death: a calm, lyrical section frames an anguished, modernistic middle. Few pianists can manage this passage without either sounding histrionic or superficial. What Sokolov offered was not a presentiment of death; rather it was an emotional development proceeding entirely from musical logic and content, coloured with stylistic allusion – an impressionistic opening phrase, followed by a precise, almost-Bachian one, before the music swelled into an outburst of immense power. The scherzo too was notable for its perfection of shape, aided by a consciously deliberate, poised tempo. The whole sonata was an abstract experience in the best sense – music that is about nothing except itself.
In Chopin, Sokolov abolished set forms. The ripeness and richness of his tone made for sensuous, unmediated listening – and which utterly resistant to any analysis. The transitions from the trio to the reprise in the Impromptus were breathtaking and make words redundant. As also with the three Chopin encores, all of them Mazurkas, there is much repetition: one of the many delights of Sokolov’s interpretation was the variety in each iteration.
Not just three Chopin encores but also another three, this time pieces of Rameau, interspersed with the Chopin, played with the same absolute confidence that transmuted their intricately decorated processes into bejewelled pianism.
Sokolov's articulation is so lucid that it does make the least imperfection evident. He seemed nervous at the beginning of each half. Neither the very opening of the Schubert nor the first part of the Fantasie-Impromptu were entirely clean, and the outer movements of the Schubert had smudges and wrong notes. It also seemed peculiar that he seemed untroubled by how much his nails clicked on the keys in light staccato passages.
Whether or not because he is difficult to market – with his concentration on music itself at the expense of superficial appearance (he also requires that any auditorium he plays in be virtually without light) and his refusal to make studio recordings – Sokolov's fame has not yet leaped from the cultic to the universal. His biography reports that he “is considered by many … to be the world's greatest living pianist”. A view one can only concur with. He easily sold-out the Queen Elizabeth Hall.
Many culture lovers are nostalgic for a past ‘golden age’. In piano circles, that very phrase is used as a term of art. I am no exception. I am sorry not to have heard Gilels live, let alone Lipatti, but I celebrate that, at least in Sokolov's playing, the ‘golden age’ remains for today.