Harrods International Piano Series 2001/2002 – 10th February

Sonata in F (H XVI 23)
Sonata in D (H XVI 37)
Sonata in E minor (H XVI 34)
Six Dances
Sonata No.7 in B flat, Op.83

Grigory Sokolov (piano)

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 10 February, 2002
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

This was a recital fit for heroes. Its virtues were thoroughly and unashamedly old-fashioned. Like a giant magic bear, Sokolov shambled on and off the stage, delivering his idiosyncratic and utterly self-confident brand of illumination.It was playing of absolute individuality and strength of will, unmediated by gimmickry or concession to fashion, the piano sound beautiful in tone.

It was bold to programme three middle-period Haydn sonatas back-to-back. It was a gamble – not that Sokolov would have seen it as such – which paid off triumphantly.Whereas a Haydn sonata is often sacrificed to begin a recital, here it emerged as a significant and distinctive contribution to the literature of the piano. Sokolov played them boldly – the first movements at a virtuosic tempo, the finales relatively slowly, certainly in comparison to the fact that two are marked ’Presto’, the third ’Molto vivace’. In between he gave an extraordinary weight and gravitas to the extremely slow and deeply felt delivery of the slow movements; their recitative-like paragraphs in which Sokolov made no compromise.

In performing the sonatas in this fashion, individual though it was, Sokolov avoided any danger that they might be taken as slight works – one was forced to see the slow movements as serious explorations of emotion. Nor did the ’Finales’ pass in the blink of an eye, as adjuncts. Haydn thus emerged as very distinct from Mozart – its greater inclination towards the rustic or simple sincerity, earth-bound in the best sense of the word. At the very opening of the recital, the first movement of No.23 set the tone for the whole recital – a striking singing tone and an uncannily accurate, clock-like rhythmic pulse that yet allowed emotional freedom. No.37 was the most dramatic of the three, the sunny outer movements given a spring and poise that perfectly framed the very slow ’Largo’, which was played like a precursor of the slow introduction to the ’Waldstein’.

If Haydn was a personal choice, pieces by Gomidas Vartabed Komitas (1869-1935) were definitely an idiosyncratic one. Komitas was born in Turkey but educated in Armenia. He studied in Berlin before returning to Armenia. His music is consistent with the post-impressionist, folk-influenced milieu, in which he worked, and has been compared to Bartok and Debussy. In Sokolov’s hands these Dances were haunting and charming by turns.

Sokolov was absolutely on home territory with Prokofiev, dealing with extreme technical demands, and extremes of emotion. It was a masterly performance. The martial wildness of the ’Finale’ was a triumphant success, Sokolov hammering out the toccata-like movement with the fury and energy of a madman, but maintaining structure and technical poise.

The four encores showed further facets of Sokolov’s pianism. The Couperin was lightness personified – the bass as sparkling and dancing as the treble. The Ravel showed the effortless virtuosity of Sokolov’s technique, this Toccata (Le Tombeau de Couperin) as driven and headlong as Prokofiev’s, yet always controlled. Of all the pieces in the recital, however, it was the first of the Chopin Mazurkas (Op.50/3) that most touched the heart. This is a long piece, by Mazurka standards, and is almost continuously reflective and melancholy. It enabled Sokolov to weave a hypnotic emotional web.

The audience stood and cheered Sokolov to the echo. While I did not respond to him quite so personally, I have no doubt that a recital like this is exactly the reason why live performance is so important to our culture.

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