Grigory Sokolov Carries His Audience With Him Every Inch of the Way

ItalyItaly Schumann & Chopin:  Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. Grigory Sokolov (piano).  Sala Santa Cecilia, Parco della Musica, Rome.  15.4.2016. (JB)

It was Bruno Cagli, formerly Presidente-Sovrintendente (now Presidente onorario) who invited Grigory Sokolov to be an honorary member of the Academy of Santa Cecilia and to sign up to give an annual recital. Lucky subscribers to the Santa Cecilia season.  The two-thousand eight-hundred seat hall is always full.  And this year we have entered a new phase: Sokolov has joined the ranks of Pappano: he appears on the front of the programme with last name alone.  This report must follow suite.  And composers must follow the name of the performer.  It’s an adulation which recalls the deification of Farinelli: There is only one God and only one Farinelli.  I shall try to show that there is some justification of these measures.

If there was one member absent last night –and he is so tall that you can never miss him, even in a crowd- that was Renzo Piano, the hall’s architect. Many instrumentalists have applauded Piano.  But Sokolov was audibly having a love-affair with him.  For the most intimate music of the programme he created an unbelievable effect of closing the hall down to the smallest drawing room.  The quieter he played the more the audience held their united breaths so as to be immersed in the music-making.  Which other instrumentalist can accomplish that?  Even more extraordinary: Sokolov would then cause the hall to reverberate like the most thunderously filled cathedral.  Moreover he passed between these extremes with ease and polish.  Sokolov is not the first instrumentalist to carry his audience with him every inch of the way.  Horowitz was masterly here too.  Watch the YouTube video of his Vienna playing of the third Schubert Moment Musicale to see this at work.

Schumann and Chopin were on the programme with Schumann in the first part. The Arabesque Op 18 –leicht und zart (lightly and tenderly) summarises perfectly the composer’s turbulent, complex and affectionate early relationship with Clara Wieck that would get better before it got worse.  Sokolov’s craftsmanship delivers magnificently on all three scores  -turbulence, complexity and affection, gliding with ease between the conflicting emotional responses.  Yet while there is a feeling of the captain being securely in charge of his ship he also manages to convey the impression that the instrument is playing this unaided.  Complexity was never better served.

Contrasts rather than complexities dominate the C major Fantasia Op17. But Sokolov is at some pains to let us hear the linking musical concepts of the seeming contrasts: this may be a musical journey where the conductor doesn’t let you leave the train but the view from here is sharper, clearer and more focused than the musical scenery that you thought you previously knew so well.  The rubato is always perfectly judged.  There were moments when he would gently slow the journey: aha! does he want us to enjoy the scenery here?  But the moment he hears your thinking this, he robs you of that very pleasure. And that, of course, is a robbery which increases the pleasure.  Was rubato ever this subtle?

The two Op32 Nocturnes of Chopin, no 1 in B (andante sostenuto)  and no 2 in B flat (Lento) call for the craftsmanship of cantabile playing.  Contrary to all expectations this has nothing to do with legato playing.  It is not easy to make the piano sing.  But oddly enough this does not depend primarily on the fingers, even though some right fingering will aid the pianist in gliding through the musical waters.  But the cantabile sound comes from the injection of the fuel supply which is supplied by control of forearm muscles which have to be adjusted/ balanced  on every note to make the singing allusion work.

With the greatest pianists some variants of fuel supply can further increase the singing allusion. It would be going in for understatement to say that Sokolov does not disappoint in this department.

All great performances depend on taking risks. The instrumentalists aim to surprise themselves.  Musical performances are only kept alive by the performer rethinking the music at every playing.  Herein the vitality –the very life-force of music.  However, in the Chopin second sonata Op35, and with the concert going so well, Sokolov overreached himself: he asked of himself something he was unable to deliver.  He wanted to give us the Funeral March slower than anyone had ever played it.  But even with skilled use of hands and the sustaining pedal there is a point at which the instrument will not hold the sound.  Sokolov’s wishes surpassed that point.  The aim was noble.  And all the more tragic because it didn’t succeed.  All the glitter of the finale is what,  the by now, ecstatic audience applauded.

The great man must have known that the audience was not going to let him get away with one encore. There were six.  And they almost deserve a special report to themselves.

Schubert’s Moments Musicaux have long been favourite encores of pianists. In one important respect this is surprising: Schubert doesn’t think pianistically as do, say, Schumann or Chopin: that is to say that Schubert doesn’t lie conveniently under the hand.  Nevertheless, that telling inconvenience aside, in the hands of the right pianist, Schubert’s pianism can make a striking effect.  And often different effects according to which pianist performs.

No 1 Moderato in C of the Moments Musicaux is in some ways the least demanding of the six.  And that is its charm.  The trick (if I may use that word) is to get our of the way of it –to let it speak for itself.  Only in that way does the jewel shine.  And Sokolov is a wonderful jeweller.

No 2 Andantino in A flat, calls for cantabile craftsmanship mentioned above.  So thank you to the pianist for confirmation of that.

No 3 Allegro moderato in F minor is many pianists’ preferred encore choice (see the reference to Horowitz above).  The F minor piece ends on an F major chord –a device known as a tierce de picarde.  It is almost always used (Bach overused it) when a melancholy piece in a minor key and maybe needs an assertive sense of finale.  As always, Sokolov’s contribution to this sense of finality is original: he underplays it!

No 4 Moderato in C sharp minor was possibly the most thoughtful playing of the evening.  Astonishing how Sokolov can be thoughtful without ever being ponderous.

No 5 Allegro vivace in F minor also gets the tierce de picarde treatment.  Again Sokolov underplays it.  A hint we should go home?

No 6 Allegretto in A flat was delivered, for all its charm, with not a little hint of now will you please-let-me-go?

There is the assurance, however, of next year to look forward to.

Jack Buckley


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