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Worshipping at the shrine of Grigory Sokolov in Verbier

By Mark Pullinger, 27 July 2016

It was apt that Grigory Sokolov gave this recital in Verbier's church. The cult Russian pianist, who refuses to play in the UK due to visa regulations, only gives a handful of concerts in Europe each year, ensuring a fervent following. Among the musical pilgims in Verbier were pianists Daniil Trifonov and Marc-André Hamelin, as well as the cellist Mischa Maisky, medallion swinging like a censer. In pews, many listened with heads bowed and hands clasped. A tripod on stage, possibly housing a camera, was shrouded in black sheeting, looking for all the world like a hooded monk at prayer.

Grigory Sokolov

 Grigory Sokolov

© Nicolas Brodard

Sokolov inspires that kind of reverence and it's not difficult to appreciate why. He plays at the keyboard in near darkness, meaning the audience's focus on his playing is even keener. Sokolov's Schumann is hewn from marble – solid but smooth, rippled with colour. The C major Arabeske was unhurried and poetic, lingering over different phrases each time the rondo section returned. Sokolov, a bear of a figure with a bob of snowy white hair, is immensely powerful, yet he never bludgeoned the keys; here the iron fist was firmly contained within a velvet glove. He led attaca into the Fantasie in C, the opening movement played with a sense of logical momentum, a great arc driving the score along steadily. He held back the tempo in the opening of the Mäßig, Durchaus energisch second movement, giving him room to manoeuvre later on.

Schumann gave way to Chopin, played with searching intensity. Every single note of the two Op.32 Nocturnes registered like individual raindrops trickling down a window pane and the way he came off trills was sheer poetry. An extremely leisurely A flat major nocturne signalled his approach to the Sonata no. 2 in B flat minor which immediately followed. He was less feverish than many in the turbulent opening, but ramped up the tension as the movement progressed. This was not an impetuous approach, but was certainly thunderous, as if trying to break the humid atmosphere, which hampered the Steinway's tuning at times, with a pianistic tempest. A few notes flew astray in the intensity of the torrent. There was no relaxation in the scherzo, taken at a steady pace, but that was nothing to the funeral march, stretched to incredible length, its heavy tread reminiscent of Mussorgsky's Bydło from Pictures at an Exhibition. There are not many pianists who could convince me that it should be taken this slowly, but that's the genius of Sokolov.

There is a weighty inevitability about his playing, completely unfussy, completely without histrionics. At the end of the sonata, there was merely a short bow towards the audience, then a slow walk from the stage. A succession of six encores followed, including five of Schubert's Moments musicaux. Sokolov sculpted each with tremendous care, a perky spring for the Rosamunde-like no.3, fiery passion for no. 5 in F minor. Each leave-taking was identical: the curt bow, the steady walk, never once betraying a flicker of emotion – the Ivan Lendl of the piano world. He seemed impervious to the adulation of the congregation. They'd have worshipped all evening, but after 40 minutes of encores, he called it a day. All hail, Sokolov. 

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