An Absorbing Vienna Recital from Grigory Sokolov

AustriaAustria Schubert and Chopin: Grigory Sokolov (piano). Grosser Saal, Konzerthaus, Vienna, 4.12.2015. (MB)

Grigory Sokolov, Piano / 06.02.2009 / Koelner Philharmonie
Grigory Sokolov (c) Klaus Rudolph

Schubert – Sonata in A minor, D 784; Six Moments musicaux, D 780

Chopin – Nocturne in B major, op.32 no.1; Nocturne in A-flat major, op.32 no.2; Piano Sonata no.2 in B minor, op.35

It is customary for any British writer on Grigory Sokolov to lament his absence from our shores. How can one not, when faced with such formidable pianism? As a friend in Vienna mentioned, only too well aware of our authorities’ attitude towards the arts – sport, is of course different – the Austrian Culture Minister would see it as his job to sort out whatever visa impediment was preventing a major artist from visiting Vienna. I should be astonished if any of our succession of Culture Secretaries had even heard of Sokolov, let alone cared that British audiences could not hear him. That is wrong, both in principle and, as this recital showed, in practice.

Sokolov’s stress or, better, leaning upon the D-sharp, the third note of the Schubert A minor Sonata’s opening phrase, was something one noticed, not for itself but for the formal and emotional propulsion it elicited. From that first phrase, there was struck a note of inexorable tragedy, close to that of Mozart’s piano sonata in the same key. Rhythm, melody, harmony: all were part of an indivisible whole. The second group in this first movement rightly sounded both as continuation and contrast. Trills seemed to have an import such as one might expect in late Beethoven, although their particular quality was quite different. The development section sounded as if poised, or rather developing, in a space between Mozart and Liszt: which, when one thinks about it, is pretty much spot on for Schubert. The recapitulation sounded almost numb, looking forward to Winterreise; and yet, it moved. The Andante showed a similar match of fearlessness and tenderness, whilst it was the sheer strangeness of the finale that initially registered: as if it were a Beethovenian moto perpetuo deepened by Mozartian chromaticism, before exploding with a fury that was entirely Schubert’s own. That in turn developed in collaboration – competition? – with a heartstopping lyricism that would not have shamed a performance of one of the song cycles. The interplay between such tendencies of the material fascinated and enthralled; above all, it moved.

The Moments musicaux, D 780, were in a state of continual becoming (the German Romantic Werden). No one really thinks of these as mere salon pieces; at least, I hope not! They certainly did not sound as such here, as Sokolov welded them into an almost continuous whole. Their developmental qualities are different from those in pieces by Beethoven; here, the development sounded as strong. Smiling through tears, as a moment – or several – between Mozart and Brahms should, the music sounded possessed at times of an almost manic intensity and insistency, without exaggeration. Rhythms were nicely sprung, born of harmonic motion rather than standing against it. Contrasts were musical, not sentimental.

Two Chopin Nocturnes followed the interval: the B major, op.31 no.2, and the A-flat major, op.32 no.2. The B major piece was surprisingly forthright, albeit with greater rubato as it proceeded. I cannot say that I cared for the throwaway fioriture; Chopin’s melodies need, for me at least, to count for more than that. However, the Lisztian way in which a melody passed from one hand to another was quite something to hear. The A-flat Nocturne was taken very seriously, perhaps too seriously, remaining somewhat earthbound. There was, however, no doubting the integrity of the performance. It may not be how I hear the piece, but who cares?

Chopin’s B minor Sonata likewise benefited from sovereign command of line and harmony, insofar as the two may be separated. It was, again, Liszt who came to mind, some of the material edging forward into the realm of his sonata in the same key. And then, chords would seemingly divide, voices taking on lines of their own – in an almost Wagnerian or Schoenbergian fashion. The Scherzo, and again I mean no adverse criticism by this, also sounded somewhat Lisztified – en-Liszted? – yet, in a performance clearly born of such conviction, I was utterly gripped. Much the same might be said of the Funeral March. Its Trio’s lyricism and Sokolov’s touch therein would have melted hearts sterner than mine. Time seemed almost to stand still, and one wished it so. The return of the March was straightforwardly overwhelming. Taken attacca, the finale was possessed of a strangeness that took my mind back to the final movement of the Schubert sonata, except of course that its course is unrelieved here. It sounded as if a single line, almost a Berio Sequenza avant la lettre, transcribed for piano.

Mark Berry

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