Grigory the Great with Schubert and Beethoven

ItalyItaly Schubert and Beethoven: Grigory Sokolov (piano). Sala Santa Cecilia, Parco della Musica, Rome. 08.05.2013 (JB)

I’ve seen the Hammerklavier Sonata described as the most audacious piece of music ever written. I recently wrote on this site of the audacity of sixteen year old Mozart. Mozart’s youthful audacity is not without its charm in all its mischief; Beethoven’s has as much charm as the Second World War. One might even be tempted to go off on a Glenda Slagg tangent: Whose oven? Who wants some deaf old German geezer ramming his gut down your ears?

That is not a path I propose to follow here. Even the most ardent cynic could not fail to notice Beethoven’s sincerity. And it comes from the inner depths of the man. And worse, it costs him pain to connect with those depths. But once that connection is made, the “work” is pouring out of him volcanically. Though not quite. There is also the struggle. The artist struggling with his art where the art is wanting to move in one direction when the artist deems it necessary to move in the other. And vice versa. We identify with this turmoil. The turmoil of creativity at its peak. Unless, that is, we are Miss Slagg.

The Hammerklavier is Big in every sense: in ambition, in scale, in structure, in audacity, in the challenge it presents to pianists and to listeners, and in length. Grigory Sokolov’s performance comes in at around fifty-two minutes, a few more than Claudio Arrau’s and many more than Andras Schiff’s. When the Greats scale the Big there are always some surprises. And Grigory Sokolov’s was no exception.

The first movement, though it stays close to sonata form (tunes –development – tunes) –which is surprising in itself, given the composer’s attitude toward form- is also packed with contrasts of tempo and tonality. Both come out in technicolor under Sokolov’s fingers. His pianissimi have a warmth, not so dry as Arrau’s, and tinged in such a way as to have the three thousand audience holding their breath. Bloody irritating the whir from the heating or air conditioning when the humans in the hall had stopped breathing. His fortissimi were chilling in their conviction.

If you blink, you will miss the scherzo. Arrau dispatches it in two minutes, thirty-three seconds, which sounds like a dusting off of the piano’s keys. Sokolov’s is very much slower and poco scherzoso, as though he has not been able to recover from the scale and the might of the first movement. I did, though, warm to the unique veiled sound he produced in the trio section.

Sokolov’s Adagio is his great, unforgettable moment. This is seriously adagio. Adagio sostenuto. Appassionato e con molto sentimento, instructs Beethoven. Every note is painstakingly weighed and coloured. He achieves an amazing, unique effect of moving by being static. If this is a walk among the dead, there are lots of unexpected “ghosts” that reassuringly arise and ask only to be left in peace. Have we touched the nerve of Beethoven’s religion? Sokolov’s too, it seems. Piano playing doesn’t come greater than this.

The fugue finale was nothing like as fast as Schiff’s. But it was certainly furious. It was also limpidly clear and transparent in the perfect delivery of the individual parts. Turmoil was the unifying factor in all four movements but who could have guessed that turmoil had so many voices?

The first part of the programme could hardly have been more in contrast. All Schubert: the four impromptus Op 90 D899 and the three pieces D 946. If the Hammerklavier is all about the pianist’s involvement with the music, Sokolov would like us to understand that these Schubert salon pieces are all about disinvolvement. He wants to convince us that the pieces play themselves.

And so they do. Or that is the effect. Nonchalance is a great Schubert ace. And Sokolov plays it every time. He dazzles by the virtue of removing himself from the pieces. Letting the notes fall out of his fingers. Like all the best conjuring tricks, the ease has been accomplished by meticulous preparation. Some of these pieces are songs without words, like Op 90 no 3 in B flat –andante- where there is a temptation to sing along with the tune. But the Sokolov cantabile is so perfectly judged, the temptation is easily resisted. That shocking modulation from B flat to B minor in the Op 90 no 2 impromptu was realized with the vigour of the Beethoven to come. We also got a taste of agitation in D946 number 3 in C, though that was held in check by a skilled dotting of all the i’s and crossing of all the t’s.

We also returned to perfectly structured miniatures for the encores. After the thunder, turmoil and grandeur of Beethoven, the first three encores were by Couperin. And they were each met with ever increasing applause. Encore four was a repetition of encore one, and encore five, of encore two. A memorable, sonorous Brahms intermezzo sent us off into the night.

Jack Buckley