Where Was Sokolov When The Lights Went Out?

ItalyItaly  Rameau, Mozart, Brahms: Grigory Sokolov (piano), Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Sala Santa Cecilia, Rome, 18.4.2012 (JB)

Something shocking has happened. The annual recital of Grigory Sokolov at Santa Cecilia was sold out as always (two thousand, eight hundred seats) and he played to the usual delirious, adoring audience. This year there was an exception: me. Every year, the house lights are dimmed lower and lower and even the platform lights are lowered just before he plays. This time it felt as though they had gone out in more ways than one.

I have all my life obstinately remained a student, at my happiest when I am in a situation where I am learning something. The Sokolov performances have fed my appetite with insights and revelations in music for which I am eternally grateful. Not so last night. I was – and I can hardly believe I am writing this – bored.

This is certainly about my own receptiveness or lack of it, almost more than it is about Sokolov.

The two major works on the programme were variations. I confess that I have a problem in relating to this structure. So often this exercise in composition sounds scholastic and mechanical with the composer taking the easy way out in stating the obvious, in the voice and manner of the headmistresses of elementary schools of yesteryear.

But I took my seat in the concert hall last night with my hope and courage flying. This was Sokolov. Surely he was going to make me understand that I have been wrong all my life about variations?

Poor Sokolov. He had a second prejudice (I usually try not to be prejudiced) to overcome with my aversion to Jean-Philippe Rameau. Normally this pianist overcomes all and every prejudice.  But not on this occasion. He confirmed them. His performance of the Rameau Suite in D sounded like a mechanical music box that had been wound up too much and would never wind down.

Rameau can easily sound like Bach on a bad day. Or peevish children kicking pebbles on a beach with insistent aggression and total disregard for the beauty of the stones. Or a 78’ record blocked in a groove and irksomely repeating itself. Sokolov confirmed all three prejudices. He did deliver with great elegance some of the ornamentation. But that, too, soon became a tiresome cliché. I pray for someone to deliver me from Rameau.

He began the great A minor Mozart sonata K 310 with his familiar let’s-have-no-romantic-nonsense about this. Fine. It was also at breakneck speed, catering to his amazing pianistic facility. With another pianist, this would not have worked. With Sokolov, it was partially successful. I was dismayed by his rolling the chords in the andante cantabile con espressione  and nodded off to sleep during the Presto  finale. This last is clearly more my deficiency than his.

The second part of the programme was dedicated to Brahms. Brahms does have the very considerable merit of never sounding like the elementary school headmistress, even when he is writing variations. However, the twenty-five variations and fugue on a theme of Handel, Op 24 can easily get bogged down in their delivery instead of studiedly growing out of each other.  On this occasion, the bog felt deep and endless. I could not feel any sense of direction. Some “experimental” pedalling helped the pianist to lose his way. Normally, Sokolov “losing his way” is an exciting experience; he can be relied on to carry his listeners with him. Not this time; not for this listener anyway.

Finally, in Brahms’s three Intermezzi Op 117, Sokolov gave us some remarkable pianistic colours with finely tuned pedalling. This was the first time in the evening that I felt the presence of this great maestro at the piano.

Half a dozen Mickey Mouse encores followed, which neither I nor any of the musical press near me were able to name. Nor would have wanted to. His own inventions? But for all this, all my other Sokolov experiences are treasured memories. So never mind the mess. Let me not apportion any blame. I shall be back for more next year.

Jack Buckley