Grigory Sokolov

Partita in E minor, BWV830
Bach trans. Brahms
Chaconne (Partita for unnacompanied violin in D minor, BWV1004)
Sonata in B flat, Op.22
Sonata in C minor, Op.111

Grigory Sokolov (piano)

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 17 January, 2004
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

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 Sokolov’s 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, Sokolov’s 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 Partita’s Sarabande, and gigantic weight of tone in Brahms’s left-hand transcription. But these are virtues, evidence that the performer has managed to strike a balance between fidelity to each composer’s intentions, and letting the listener hear something new. There is no word to describe Sokolov’s 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 composer’s 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 today’s 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 Richter’s strength of character, and the poetic musicality of a Lipatti, to impose himself on the music while remaining utterly the composer’s servant. There’s a convention that every review must contain some adverse criticism, to demonstrate the critic’s detachment and attentiveness. I can think of nothing, beyond wrong notes, which detracted from this recital’s 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 Sokolov’s 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 Sokolov’s 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.

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