Salzburg Festival (5):Another Remarkable Recital from Grigory Sokolov

AustriaAustria Salzburg Festival (5) – Schubert and Beethoven: Grigory Sokolov (piano). Groβes Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 23.8.2013 (MB)

Schubert – Four Impromptus, D 899
Three Piano Pieces, D 946
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.29 in B-flat major, op.106, ‘Hammerklavier’

Grigory Sokolov is truly one of a kind. This was a lengthy recital: it began at nine o’clock, or rather just after, and six (!) encores meant that it concluded, like a performance I heard in Vienna last year, more than three hours later, in this case at ten past midnight. I shall not discuss the encores here, save to say that one of their many pleasures was to remind us that no one alive, and perhaps ever, on whatever instrument, has played Rameau with such distinction. Indeed, the particular combination of strength and ornamental delicacy, though assisted by the eccentric – to put it mildly – regulation of the instrument, is most likely unique anywhere in the world (and perhaps beyond it!)

It is a cliché to say that a fine performance of sets such as Schubert’s Four Impromptus, D 899, and the Three Piano Pieces, D 946, will have them sounding as if sonatas in their own right. They will, but such description also misses a great deal of what makes them so singular, and indeed so moving. In Sokolov’s case, however, there is, as it were, a singularity that is at least squared, perhaps raised to the nth degree. The Impromptus certainly covered a broad range of expressive ground, often bringing to mind the surprising degree of affinity between Schubert and Chopin, without ever quite sounding ‘like’ Chopin. The first statement of the march theme in the C minor Impromptu, for instance, might almost, yet not quite, have been one of those enigmatic opening statements in a Nocturne; the ‘not quite’, however, was just as important, for there was a sense of purpose, which, though certainly not lacking in Chopin, would have been of a different variety, more operatic in a sense, less charged with Schubert’s unique developmental alternative path to Beethoven. Transitions between foreboding rhythmic tread and rippling accompaniment at times seemed to speak of Schubert’s Lieder without ever sounding merely ‘derived’ from them. Intriguingly, there were passages, which, whilst certainly not played in any ‘enhanced’ version, sounded as if conceived – and executed – in a twilit zone somewhere between ‘straight’ Schubert and Liszt’s transcriptions of his songs. The lack of sentimentality in the G-flat Impromptu was most welcome; not that it was stark or crystalline, let alone ‘modernistic’; this was not playing that in any sense recalled, say, Pollini, or indeed the often extraordinary degree of kinship one discovers between Schubert and the Second Viennese School. Yet there was a delight in Schubert’s music as music that was perhaps not so wholly removed from such different aesthetics as one might think in the abstract.

Both the Impromptus and still more the Three Piano Pieces seemed almost to inhabit a world beyond time. One had a sense of an expansiveness that went beyond the typical ‘heavenly lengths’ of Schubert, and yet which never threatened to pall. It was not because these were slow performances, but rather a matter of somehow experiencing time differently, so that one travelled a musical – and emotional – journey and yet could immediately have embarked upon another. Formal considerations registered, for instance the rondo forms of D 946, yet, despite sectional clarity, there was no danger of falling into the merely episodic. Transitions were somehow implied when not present, and made to delight when they were. Voicing, again doubtless assisted by the regulation of the instrument, was beyond reproach; it did not, however, sound for its own sake, seeming instead a ‘natural’ expression of the works ‘in themselves’.

The Hammerklavier Sonata was one of the works I had heard in Vienna. Its performance somewhat puzzled me then, and in many ways did so now, though there was no question of this being the same reading repeated. Again, I wondered whether a more conventionally regulated instrument might have unleashed truer Beethovenian spirit, but that was only really a question in the abstract. I was involved from beginning to end, and did not once find my attention wavering. There was certainly apt scale to the first movement: scale of ambition and of expressive range. Likewise there were oddities, for instance the presentation of the opening left-hand B-flat, both at the very opening and upon its reappearances: it sounded almost as if it were the first beat of the bar, and yet somehow that ambiguity or even infidelity was made to work, and to sound anything less than perverse. The scherzo sounded as a fleeting dream, weirdly unhinged, almost stream of consciousness, yet remaining anchored at least in implied harmonic motion. It was the slow movement, as in Vienna, which ultimately lost me, but more briefly on this occasion, and considerably later on. I am not at all sure how Sokolov did this, and cannot even really describe what I heard, but there was a sense of losing moorings with Beethoven completely; one passage seemed straight out of Chopin, though it was Beethoven’s notes that were being played. It is certainly not how I should always want this sonata to sound, yet I cannot deny the fascination. The finale was perhaps a little more Apollonian than it had been last year; Beethovenian discontinuities, however, disrupted all-too-easy characterisations. The clarity of Beethoven’s counterpoint simply had to be heard to be believed, though onward drive was every bit as impressive.

What a scandal it is, then, that UK immigration regulations mean that one must travel abroad to hear Sokolov – not that, for a minute, I mind being in Salzburg! I strongly recommend a reading of this article by James Rhodes, whether or no one should agree with the contentious headline. The greatest sadness of all would perhaps be that the Prime Minister, Home Secretary, et al., will most likely never have heard of Grigory Sokolov, let alone heard him in concert.

Mark Berry