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Grigory Sokolov Recital - The Chiaroscuro of Age - Warsaw, 21 November 2021

Michael Moran

Grigory Sokolov by Sulivan Sweetland

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A youthful Robert Schumann and Sergei Rachmaninoff

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The first precocious recording of the young Grigory Sokolov
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Grigory Sokolov

Initially I was surprisingly disappointed by this recital but in the words of the great English poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) from his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads of 1802 :

  ‘Poetry takes its origin from emotions recollected in tranquility...'

During this pause for thinking, my often tumultuous emotions when listening to Sokolov matured somewhat and I wrote the following appraisal of his programme. 

With any great artist of this stature, one must never succumb to superficial assessments. This predisposition is all too common in our social media dominated world of trite generalizations, infantile cartoon figures and adoration of sensation at the expense of serious analytical thought - the all too common present retreat from the intellect. 

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)     

Kreisleriana Op.16

Phantasien für das Pianoforte 

Äusserst bewegt

Sehr innig und nicht zu rasch

Sehr aufgeregt

Sehr langsam

Sehr lebhaft

Sehr langsam

Sehr rasch

Schnell und spielend

Sokolov opened his recital with one of my favourite works of romantic piano literature Kreisleriana Op. 16 by Robert Schumann.

Madness or insanity was a notion that throughout the composer's time on earth, simultaneously attracted and repelled Schumann. At the end of his life he was cruelly to fall victim to it. Kreisleriana was presented publicly as eight sketches of the fictional character Kapellmeister Kreisler, a rather crazy conductor-composer who was a literary figure created by the marvellous German Romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffman who possessed 'an overwhelming interest in music'. The piece is actually based on the Fantasiestücke in Callots Manier and also the double narrative form of an inventive grotesque satirical literary novel Hoffmann wrote with the remarkable, translated title: Growler the Cat’s Philosophy of Life Together with Fragments of the Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler from Random Sheets of the Printer’s Waste. 

Schumann's work was partly a response to what he considered to be the demise of the sonata form post-Beethoven -  ' looks as if this form has run its course.' he wrote.

The fictional author of this double novel (two protagonists) Kater Murr (Growler the Cat) is actually a caricature of the German petit bourgeois class. 'O Appetite, thy name is Cat! With the herring head in my mouth I climbed to the roof, like pious Aeneas.' Certainly this is a bizarre work of literature! 

In a theme rather appropriate in our times of gross financial inequalities, Growler advises the reader how to become a ‘fat cat’. This advice is interrupted by fragments of Kreisler’s impassioned biography. The bizarre explanation for this is that Growler tore up a copy of Kreisler’s biography to use as rough note paper. When he sent the manuscript of his own book to the printers, the two got inexplicably mixed up when the book was published. Such devices remind one of Laurence Sterne in that great experimental novel Tristram Shandy.

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Music and literature were inextricably connected in Schumann's artistic aesthetic. He was particularly fond of Kreisleriana and attracted to composing a work in ‘fragmented’ form in the structural manner of this novel. The use of the device of interrelated ‘fragments’ (as the nineteenth century termed what we might refer to as 'miniatures') was employed by the Romantic Movement in poetry, prose and music. Schumann often likened the listening to music to that of reading a novel. References to literature are found in many of his compositions.


Kreisler is a type of Doppelgänger for Schumann. This was a favourite concept for the composer, who divided his own creative personality between the created characters of Florestan and Eusebius. With the unpredictable Kreisler as his alter ego, Schumann was able to indulge the dualities of his own personality. The music swings violently and suddenly between agitation (Florestan) and lyrical calm (Eusebius), between dread and elation. Or one might conjecture, between the composer and the cat. The episodes in the piece describe Schumann's emotional passions, his divided personality and his creative art. His tortured soul alternates with lyrical love passages expressing the composer’s love for Clara Wieck. He used and transformed one of her musical themes in the work.

The work oscillates between two highly contrasting schemes of music.1838 was a disturbed time for Schumann. His marriage to this 'inaccessible love', the piano virtuoso Clara Wieck, was a year ahead. At this time they were painfully petitioning the courts for permission to marry and ignore her father's cruel social class objections to the connection. They had known each other for ten years before their eventual marriage in 1840. During this turbulent period of frustration, Schumann’s compositions evolved in complexity. Their unbridled emotionalism and adventurous structure confused musicians, audience and critics alike. The work was written as predominantly oscillating between B-flat major (slow - lyric, expressive - legato flowing melody - small octaves) and G minor (rapid - non-lyric - dotted rhythms, rests, staccato notes - mechanistic repetitions - short motives - contra and great octaves).

Schumann originally intended to dedicate the work to Clara, but wishing to avoid more calamitous situations with her father, who had violently forbidden their marriage, eventually dedicated it to his friend Fryderyk Chopin. He wrote the work in an astonishing four days in April 1838.  The polyphonic nature of the piece may have reflected a deep understanding of Chopin's own style and certainly a love of Bach. The Polish composer merely commented on the cover design of the score left on his piano. Even Clara, on first acquaintance with the work, wrote: 'Sometimes your music actually frightens me, and I wonder: is it really true that the creator of such things is going to be my husband?' Even Franz Liszt was challenged finding the work 'too difficult for the public to digest.' 

Schumann wrote to Clara in a letter:

'Play my Kreisleriana sometimes. You will find a wild, unbridled love in there in places, together with your life and mine, and many of your glances.' Also 'Oft these things (his works), I love the Kreisleriana the most.'

This great masterpiece of emotional and structural complexity expresses much of the quixotic mercurial temperament of Schumann's personality and the literary constructive elements of the story. Contrasting passages of great discontinuity run up against each other ironically but then finally converge.

In 1834 Schumann had met Hoffmann's role model for the Kreisler figure, the composer Ludwig Böhner (1787-1860) in Leipzig. 'You know that he was as famous as Beethoven in his time and that the Hoffmann was sitting with his Kapellmeister Kreißler as the original… The day before yesterday he fantasized with me for a few hours; the old lightning bolts struck out here and there, but otherwise everything is dark and dreary ... If I had the time, I would like to write Böhnerians for which he gave me the material himself.'

The poetry of the form of the Kreisler section lies in its symbolic circularity (The French literary theorist and Schumann-lover Roland Barthes interestingly observed that Schumann composed music in discrete, intense 'images' rather than as an evolving musical 'language', like a succession of frames in a film). In the literary cycle, Kreisler becomes obsessed with Bach's Goldberg Variations and Schumann is catalyzed by this reference and his own adoration of the music of Bach to improvise complex variations on the Goldbergs in Kreisleriana. This, what one may call 'stretching' of Bach, and placing it transformed into the world of Romanticism, testifies to Kreisler's (and Schumann's) disturbed temperament at this time. 

In Kater Murr: 'Unfortunately, the current biographer is forced to portray his hero, if the portrait should be correct, as an extravagant person who, especially when it comes to musical enthusiasm, often seems almost mad to the quiet observer.'

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The Swiss pianist and musical commentator Walther Rehberg (1900-1957) reinterpreted this psychologising implementation of the Kreisler figure as projected onto Schumann's own psyche: 'So his own storms of the heart, but also his other, wide-ranging inner experiences that are not always compatible with the limits of the bearable, found expression in his Kreisleriana.' This refers to Schumann's self-image: He saw himself as a forerunner of a concept of art that broke the fetters of pleasant musical enjoyment and penetrated the 'romantic realm of spirits', threatened by the constant danger of brushing against madness.' (Karl Böhmer Villa Musica)


The composer was also experimenting with the timbre of piano sound. Without wishing to appear a 'crank', I feel it necessary to say that on a piano of Schumann's period (he loved Clara's Conrad Graf of 1838 from Vienna) the varied colours, timbre and textures of the different registers suited the contrapuntal nature of composition. This would have been rather more obvious on the older instrument than on the modern homogenized sound of the Steinway.

Such a temperamental and capricious work by Schumann (and the bizarre background story by E.T.A.Hoffmann) is difficult to present to modern listeners with great conviction and lucidity. Even Schumann once commented 'Only Germans can understand the title Kreisleriana.'  The reason for this apparent prejudice was that Hoffmann was scarcely read outside Germany at the time and even today scarcely read at all anywhere. So the extra literary dimension to understanding this work is often lost, particularly on young pianists who seem completely averse to reading the literary background and inspiration of the great works they are studying and practising so assiduously.

However this was not the case with Grigory Sokolov this evening. I felt this unpredictable, spontaneous, quick-silver, moody aspect of the composer was fully conceived, dominated and expressed by Sokolov. The lyrical Eusebius qualities of the piece were superbly contrasted with the more energetic, fragmented driving, almost pathological qualities of Florestan. This established the Doppelgänger motif, so close to Schumann, in the composition.

Sokolov opened the work headlong without the slightest hesitation as if it was the continuation of a dream sequence that had evolved beforehand in the green room. I was immediately overwhelmed by his rich glowing tone which seemed to fill the entire hall organically like some enchanted fluid made up of sound. His quality of touch, fine articulation, polyphony and counterpoint supported the onstage gauze of performance. I will not analyse each movement of the work save mentioning the intense poetic arias and songs. Kreisleriana progressed through intense lyrical interludes of sublime melody and periods of monumental, almost symphonic rhapsodic playing of quite disturbing violence - the fierce agitation of an older soul.

As these contrasting sections filled the hall, I became aware of the immense contrast between the profound emotional maturity of what I was listening to and the steely technical perfectionism of so many of the emotionally immature young candidates in the recent Chopin competition. Here Sokolov's effortless flowing cantilena achieved great emotional depth. He created an indelible, almost indescribable in language, yes, expressed feeling of the hopeless love yearning at that time Robert had for Clara. As is well known, her father (who had actually given Schumann piano lessons), forbade their marriage in cruel terms and took hurtful steps to prevent it. Sokolov communicated this deeply personal conviction, emotions of yearning and suffering in addition to his glorious legato.

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The profound expression of the aged Brahms

Self-portrait Rembrandt van Rijn at 63 in 1669

Sokolov had by now moved with us into a world of heightened reality, that of great artistic profundity. I began to envision in his presence the dark impassioned late portraits and landscapes of Rembrandt van Rijn. (1606-1669). His broad musical phrases of maturity were analogous to the broad, inexact, vitally expressive yet tender brushstrokes emergent from what one might term, the aphasic chiaroscuro of age in say the expressive Rembrandt self-portrait of 1669. The contrast of the dark mysterious depths in this face, the fathomless disillusionment of tragedy, endurance and loss contrasted with the uplifting joys, beauty and satisfactions of life are so affecting. Sokolov penetrated this normally inaccessible music and presented the fraught psyche of Schumann himself in a similar manner to this painful work. His own obsession with polyphony and Bach was perfectly clear to the 'educated listener'. His own personal, lyrical love story, whatever it may have been, was achingly obvious and deeply meditative.

The virtuoso textures and variety of Rembrandt's brush in his advanced age were mirrored and communicated in the extraordinary variety and colours of the sound palette of Sokolov. I felt a sense of his being alone, broken-hearted, stricken, contemplative. Even the occasional, so surprising, but unimportant inaccuracies that surfaced with this artist were strangely in keeping with his deep emotional experience and complete immersion in the music. This profound artist wings far above the simple label 'pianist'. 'There are pianists and there is Sokolov' is often said. A deep, intimate, immediate and cathartic experience was given to us during the grandeur of this performance. He had removed his ego and become a conduit for the spirit of the composer. With Sokolov you are not listening to a pianist, you are listening to a soul.

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Chiaroscuro Landscape with a long arched bridge (1637-39) - Rembrandt van Rijn 

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

Ten Preludes Op.23

After the intermission Sokolov continued his exploration of the effect of passing years with a rare performance of the complete cycle of the Rachmaninoff Op.23 Preludes. An attempt to to recapture youth? 

The premiere of Rachmaninoff's First Symphony under Glazunov in 1895 was rather a disaster. It had a profoundly paralyzing effect on his imagination. However, after a course of hypnotherapy under Dr Nikolai Dahl in Moscow in 1900, his inspiration returned. During this hiatus, conducting burgeoned and in 1901, following the Second Piano Concerto, the Second Suite for two pianos and the Cello Sonata, his fertile mind fell to creating masterpieces once again.


His private life, too, was rather blighted by a fraught love affair with Anna Lodichensky but by 1901 his feelings for his cousin Natalia Satin had developed far into love and they were eventually married in May 1902. He once observed: Music comes straight from the heart and talks only to the heart: it is Love! 

His marriage to his cousin inspired the creation of the Ten Preludes for piano Op. 23. These were written at the same time as his first extended solo piano work, the Variations on a Theme of Chopin, the theme being taken from the Chopin Prelude No.20 in C minor Op.28. The Moscow recital on 10 February 1903, in which Rachmaninoff premiered the Chopin Variations, also witnessed the first performance of three of the Op 23 set, Nos 1, 2 and 5. The remaining seven were written in Moscow during the next few weeks as the couple awaited the birth of their first child. The complete set of ten were dedicated to his supporter Alexander Siloti and written mainly for financial reasons.

No. 1 in F♯ minor (Largo)

Again the sound Sokolov extracted from the instrument filled the hall like a precious amber resin. This work became a passionate utterance of love.

No. 2 in B♭ major (Maestoso)

This was sculpted into something magnificent and monumental with the greatest majesty and poise. The cantabile  was possessed of musical aristocracy.

No. 3 in D minor (Tempo di minuetto)

I saw dappled sunlight playing on groves of birch trees yet with the slightly threatening approach of a storm of passion.

No. 4 in D major (Andante cantabile)

This was a fine singing Andante with seamless, radiant cantabile possessing the most elevated nobility.

No. 5 in G minor (Alla marcia)

The most famous and celebrated of the Preludes. He began in a moderate tempo which he slowly built to an inevitable and irresistible triumph. The air of the hall was movingly burdened with the richness of his sound. You could hear a pin drop to embrace a familiar cliche. The luminescent cantilena hovered immortally above the tumult of life. I could not help feeling what a unique and fortunate experience it was to hear Sokolov perform this celebrated work, drowning in the full tide of his musical maturity. What a treasure....

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A troika on the Steppe - Ivan Aivazovski (1817-1900)

No. 6 in E♭ major (Andante)


Here we were given such a tender and lyrical depiction of the yearning for love. Sokolov made much of the eloquent and affecting counterpoint.

No. 7 in C minor (Allegro)

A most disturbing agitation of the psyche overcame me, perturbation of an extreme order of dissociation. The opulent quality of his sound was mined from the rich, deepest cavern of the instrument.

No. 8 in A♭ major (Allegro vivace)

A vision of spring rain falling on the Russian steppe. I saw scenes from the flowing grasses in the landscape of a Andrei Tarkovsky film.

No. 9 in E♭ minor (Presto)

The texture of the sound in this Prelude was astonishing as if endless, irresistible waves were breaking on the shore of an inland sea.

No. 10 in G♭ major (Largo)

And so the cycle came full circle with another Largo although Rachmaninoff never performed these Preludes as a cycle in the same manner as Chopin did not of his own. This was a true meditation and an ardent love song of heart-breaking yearning and intensity. The sound and musical utterance faded away to a potent, expressive silence, returning to the ether from which it had emerged.


Sokolov is always so generous with his encores and we invariably receive six. This gesture has become an institution in itself. These are always great performances of the works selected and should be listened to with the greatest attention and concentration. These pieces often contain as much musical distinction and magnificence as the 'official' recital programme. 

First of all,  perhaps the most moving and heart-wrenching of Brahms romantic keyboard works, the Intermezzo in A major Op.118 Andante teneramente.

This was followed by the Brahms Ballade in G minor Allegro energico as an almost masculine counterweight to the feminine Intermezzo that had preceded it. He performed the work with a turbulent, masculine passion born from maturity - songs without compare emerged.

Then came the Chopin Polonaise in E-flat minor op.26 No.2 He opened the work at a noticeably moderate tempo, not declamatory, with a haunting and ominous detaché. I found his approach replete with the Polish emotion of  żal and passionate resistance. I began to believe that Sokolov presented us with this polonaise with all the unreality of a dream by Chopin.

In the Chopin Polonaise in A-flat major Op.53 the heroic power came from the moderate tempo he adopted and the almost understated sense of passionate anger, resistance and defiance.

The heavenly brief Scriabin Prelude in E minor Op.114 possessed a profound and sensitive yearning for love and sense of loss.

And then to conclude, an immense and formidable Chopin Prelude No.20 in C minor Op.28. This the one that had  inspired Rachmaninoff's Op.22 Variations on a Theme of Chopin and which now reconnected us to the Rachmaninoff cycle. 

I cannot excel the poetic expressiveness contained in a letter that Jane Stirling wrote to Chopin's elder sister Ludwika Jędrzejewicz in Warsaw from Paris on the 12 June 1850 concerning this Prelude:

These chords [which came from under his fingers] were celestial rather than of this earth, they were chords full of an inspiration reaching towards eternity.

Ah yes, as I stumbled out once again into a freezing Warsaw November night, I reflected that such a description could be accurately applied to this entire spiritually uplifting recital by Grigory Sokolov. Certainly we are in dire present need of reminders of the creative and beautiful rather than the destructive and ugly in human nature, the courage required to face the current human adversities of many types and complexions, most of them tragic. 

The recital expressed the power of deepest humanism, creativity and maturity in creating an appropriate profundity of musical interpretation and a direct connection to the spirit and inspiration of the composer. Such plumbing of the bottomless well of expression continues to evolve over time in a great artist such as Sokolov. Such a transformation only unfolds after overcoming, through endless work on his art, the many spiritual and physical reversals that indiscriminate Nature seeks to mercilessly project upon us. We are privileged listeners to this evolution.

Wild applause, shouts and an enthusiastic standing ovation to which I felt Sokolov remained rather indifferent.

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