Towards Understanding Grigory Sokolov’s Perfection

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Bach, Beethoven, SchubertGrigory Sokolov (piano).  Sala Santa Cecilia, Parco della Musica, Rome.  29-04.2015 (JB)

In my experience of his playing, the name of Grigory Sokolov is synonymous with Perfection.  This is not to use the word perfection  where it means the same as precision, though there is abundance of that in the maestro’s playing too.  But precision   often caries with it overtones of the mechanical, or even unstoppable automation.  Both those things are alien to this pianist.

To arrive at an understanding of Sokolov’s genius it is necessary to borrow from the language of philosophy and poetry the word soul.  If you are nervous about this word (I am) please stop reading now.  There is no way I can do without it, though I’m well aware that the word has a slippery trick of redefining itself at every appearance.  But for any reader with patience, let me proceed.

I’ve always been impressed by the way Sokolov seems so at home with his composers; he somehow obliterates his own enormous musical personality by his occupation  of the territory of the author he plays.  There is a kind of transmutation process where on tonight’s programme, for instance, first he becomes Bach, then Beethoven, then Schubert.  All the same, the Sokolov ship is not without a decisive pilot.  And what utter confidence it gives listeners to know that he is in charge.

Sokolov’s first concern is always his relationship with his instrument.

I’m reminded here of an episode back in the eighties, when Clifford Curzon made a rare appearance at Santa Cecilia, for a Mozart concerto. Then, as now, the Academia was proud of the new Steinway it had acquired.  Sir Clifford asked me to get him to the hall an hour ahead of the first rehearsal so he could familiarise himself with the instrument.  When he tried it, he then pointed to the side of the stage, asking about another piano there.  Ah that is the Academia’s old Steinway,  said the stage manager.  Sir Clifford went over to try it, then with a smile, turned to me and said, Would you please arrange for them to change over these two pianos.  We’ll leave that new Steinway to the young lions.  I like a piano that I play, not one that plays me. 

The modern Steinway can indeed be unyielding.  Sokolov has it stipulated in his contract that he will be given a full morning in the auditorium on the day of the concert, with all the doors closed.  He arrives with his own piano mechanic’s kit.  Were you to look through a crack in the door you might see pieces of your Steinway spread over the floor as he makes adjustments to the instrument’s action and sound.  In this way he ensures that he doesn’t arrive at the concert handicapped by the instrument’s limitations.

Bach was resurrected on a new scale for the Partita in B flat,  BWV825.  The short phrases of the Prelude were simultaneously questioning and seductive and established the player’s relationship with his instrument as Sokolov alone can do.  The Saraband felt like an improvisation with the Russian’s detailed authority to the fore.  There were invocations of harpsichord and organ, but also of pizzicato cellos.  Messrs Steinway  are probably unaware that  you can do  this on their instrument.

Most memorable of all was the gigue’s champagne-like bubbling.  Yet for all the alcoholic sparkle it sounded unmistakably like Bach, but a Bach that asks us, Bet you didn’t think I could sound like this eh? 

Like those hugely skilled movie makers of the sixties who abandoned colour to return to an exploration of black and white, startling us with their expressive results, Sokolov returns to the duo of pianistic colours for the Beethoven Op 10 no 3 sonata in D.  The black and white is every so skilfully tinged with greys (just like the movie makers) when the shadows call for it.

The beauty of tone in the first theme of the Largo e mesto  took us in to unheard depths of soul. (There! Knew I wasn’t going to get off without the word!)  But he also let us hear that the music’s inherent drama is at its finest when the phrase is whitened .  This partially illuminates the glorious mystery of the music.  And that can only ever be done partially.

The minuet and rondo finale generate their own musical energy which is another language from the first two movements.  Sokolov’s unique authority  asserts itself here. And how reassuring that is.

Schubert frequently expresses a yearning for the unattainable, much in evidence in the posthumous sonata in A minor, D 784.  And Sokolov’s yearning has a unique pianistic tint. There is more high drama in the first movement than I have been used to hearing.  After the introduction, the first real theme makes its appearance as though the pianist is stealing  it out of the piano without the instrument’s consent –a kind of don’t-listen-now touch which makes for a confidentiality between performer and audience.  Secrets that must remain unspoken.  This may be an illusion. But it is very effective one.

The andante  may have marks of a Victorian hymn, but it is addressed to a god who we don’t know.  And one who under Sokolov fingers is worth getting to know.  So profoundly involved in the music is he that anything to do with himself gets obliterated.  A virtuoso achievement which underscores his humility.

The allegro vivace  first sounds like a kindly introduction to Mendelssohn’s fairies.  But not quite.  Sokolov shows us that demons also unexpectedly pop up along this path too.

Of the six Moment Musicale  op 94, D 780, I think nos 1 (moderato in C),  2 (andantino in B flat) and no 6 (allegretto  in B flat) will live longest in musical memory.  The first because of its daring simplicity,  with lyrical phrases that dissolve into accompaniments and vice versa; the second with “trapped” melodies  that can’t get out . aching for an unreachable past, and the finale’s unexpected whispered ending.

As usual, Sokolov was generous with encores: six in all.  Nothing flashy or showy, just pure, unadulterated musicianship.  The two Chopin waltzes were sheer grace and charm, poetically understated. And especially the A minor.   It’s a pity that the thirty-year old amateur Polish pianist, Rafal Blechacz, who won the Warsaw 2005 Chopin Prize and massacred some waltzes at last week’s S Cecilia concert, was not present to hear this model performance.

Then followed two mazurkas and the D flat Prelude (sometimes called the (raindrop). Finally, a Debussy Prelude from Book 2 with some subtle pedalling.

Bruno Cagli when he was President of Santa Cecilia (he’s now honorary President) made Grigory Sokolov an Academico  of S Cecilia with a promise from him to return every year with whichever recital programme he would be touring   in that year.  Aren’t we lucky?

Jack Buckley

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