top of page

Gregory Sokolov

Dr. Mark Zilberquit.

from the book "Russia's great modern pianists"


Russian great modern pianists

Gregory Sokolov was born April 18, 1950, in Leningrad. His life is connected with that city where he is now the leading pianist. His parents did not have any professional ties to music. However, his father, Lipman Girshevich Sokolov, from whom the future pianist must have inherited his musicality, learned to play the violin.

Regular study of music began when Gregory Sokolov was five years old, and at seven years of age he entered the School for Gifted Children, part of the Leningrad Conservatory. There, during all his 11 years of studies, his tutor was Leah Zelikhman. After leaving school, Sokolov continued with his studies in the Leningrad Conservatory under the tutelage of professor Moisey Khalfin. But Gregory Sokolov entered the Conservatory having already won world fame. In his ninth grade at school he became the “Gold” laureate of the Tchaikovsky Competition (1966).

Awarding the highest prize of such a prestigious competition to a 16-year-old pianist was at first considered by some critics and musicians perplexing. However, the years following the Competition showed that the jury headed by Emil Gilels had made no mistake in their judgment. All who heard Sokolov at that time were startled by the profoundness of his interpretation. “He possesses brilliant finger and chord technique, he easily wields the piano, so easily that he performs prestissimo of the last movement (of the Saint-Saëns Concerto No.2) with truly refined lightness," wrote Harold Schonberg in the New York Times. “It was a startling performance. Doubtless we are going to hear much more about this young talented pianist..."

Grigory Sokolov
Gregory Sokolov

The words of the leading American critic proved prophetic. Today Gregory Sokolov is one of the foremost Soviet musicians. The profundity of his approach to a musical composition, the vastness of his repertory including compositions from Bach to Schoenberg, the earnestness and originality of his performing intentions, and the precision of their realization permit one to conclude that in the near future he is due to take his place among the most prominent performers of our time.

The pianist combines concertizing with pedagogics, being assistant professor of the Leningrad Conservatory; though, as he himself admits, teaching is burdensome at times. It may be because of his reluctance to be distracted by anything from performance which comprises the essence of his life.

Gregory Sokolov’s life as a touring soloist is quite overcrowded. He tours a great deal in both his motherland and abroad. Four times he toured the USA (1969, 1971, 1975, 1979). Sokolov’s art is held in the highest esteem in European countries.

*   *   *

I met Gregory Sokolov when he was on tour in the capital. We talked in a Hotel Moscow suite in the intervals between his performances and rehearsals.

The pianist’s concerts in Moscow are always an important event in the musical life of the city. In Moscow, as in his native Leningrad, he has his own audience, constantly increasing but mainly consisting of those listeners who have been watching his creative development for 15 years; that is, since as 16-year-old Grisha Sokolov, an unknown in Moscow, he outstripped many an eminent favorite, and became the number one sensation, the “gold at the Tchaikovsky Competition.

Talking with Gregory Sokolov, I often thought that I felt a kind of strain unusual for interviews of this sort. Later I realized the reason for it: Sokolov, as probably no other of his colleagues with whom I have spoken, is so concentrated in his speech, striving tor utmost accuracy in the account of his thoughts and ideas. During all the hours of our discussions I did not hear him utter a single remark just by chance, a single word concerning the subject of our talk-piano performance, pedagogics, problems of music. In everything his extraordinary exactness and seriousness in respect to his pursuit, to Art on the whole is obvious.

Grisha Sokolov performing at a school concert
Grisha Sokolov performing at a school concert

Beginning our discussion, I asked Gregory Sokolov to tell of his evolution, from his point of view, after the victory in the Tchaikovsky Competition.

GS: Of course, in the years that have elapsed since my success in the Tchaikovsky Competition, almost half of my life, a great deal has changed for me as a performer, and I myself must have also changed greatly. However, I’m not going to renounce what has been done before. I find it absurd when people say that at 16 one was one musician and then that he “grows” into something different.


MZ: In other words, you consider the victory at the competition to be not so much the achievement of a student, as the commencement of your artistic career, don’t you?


GS: The concerts I gave right after the competition already included such compositions as the Beethoven 28th Sonata, Schubert’s A-major Sonata, The Wanderer, the B minor Sonata of Chopin.

MZ: As far as I know, both the Soviet and foreign press highly appreciated your performances of the post-competition period. But perhaps your tender age and boyish looks really “hypnotized” some of the critics and affected their estimation.


GS: Critics are apt to stick to certain clichés and labels, for instance, “age” cliches, i.e., in their estimation that is their pseudobiographical approach. If the musician is young, it means that his performance is fresh and spontaneous; if the musician is no longer so young his interpretation is marked with wisdom and maturity. It is absolutely wrong. A true musician can and must be mature at a very early age.


MZ: The problem of the estimation of creative performance by critics is quite involved. And we’ll certainly turn to it. But now I’d like to touch upon another question. Your study of music began when you were five, and at 16 you embarked upon the career of a performer. It would be most interesting to know of the main landmarks of that considerably short route, that is of the years when you were developing as a pianist.


GS: The beginning was quite ordinary: my parents bought a piano, and from that moment I could not think of anything else but becoming a pianist. My teacher, Leah Ilyinichna Zelikhman, a marvelous pedagogue, managed to arrange our studies in such a way that everything went smoothly and very naturally for me.


MZ: Your first teacher Leah Zelikhman, as well as your Conservatory professor Moisey Khalfin, were both former pupils of professor S. Savshinsky, a famous methodologist. To what extent can you describe a certain originality of your school teacher’s method?


GS: I guess Leah Zelikhman did not have any particular “method” in the narrow sense of the word. It would be more correct to speak of something much more elaborate than a schematic method. She simply knew how to find a correct approach to a pupil in every individual case. She had no dogmas. For example, she wouldn’t force her pupils to play scales; neither would she forbid them to do so. She used to give the example that some of the great pianists did play scales, but others did not. She held that it was possible to solve the same technical problems not necessarily on scales, but on actual works. Since the very first years there was a most earnest attitude to studies.


MZ: It must have also showed in your zealous studies?


GS: Certainly. Approximately in the fifth grade, that is by the age of 12, I was practicing for some five or six hours a day.


MZ: On what repertory was your pianistic development built? Was it given to you gradually or did Zelikhman resort to “leaps”, that is, offered you compositions much more difficult than your level allowed for?


GS: I was taught a versatile repertory. I played a great deal of Bach whom I’ve appreciated since childhood, compositions of Viennese classics, Chopin and others.


MZ: It is common knowledge that artistic maturity is not reduced merely to a brilliant command of the instrument. This definition involves broad-mindedness, the ability to see and perceive what is going on beyond the immediate boundaries of one’s profession, doesn’t it? Evidently, such things were also taken care of in the process of your development.

Grisha Sokolov not long before his performance in the Tchaikovsky Competition
Grisha Sokolov not long before his performance in the
Tchaikovsky Competition

GS: Surely there shouldn’t be any such thing as limiting the development of a pianist exclusively to the acquisition of pianistic skills. It should be a person with an understanding of art in the broad sense of the word, an understanding of the correlation between the intertwining arts. I for one have been fond of literature and painting since my school years.

MZ: Which of the great pianists inspired you in your years of studies?


GS: I began to frequent the Philharmonic Society very early Later I also acquainted myself with the art of the great masters through records. As a result I acquired my own favorites. Of those whom I heard on the stage I’d like to name first of all Emil Gilels. Judging by the records, it was Rachmaninoff, Sofronitsky, Gould Solomon, Lipatti. As to esthetics, I feel most close to Anton Rubinstein.

Gregory Sokolov with his teacher Leah Zelikhman
Gregory Sokolov with his teacher Leah Zelikhman

MZ: Do you mean his enlightenment conceptions?


GS: Both as to enlightenment and performance, as we can envision them on the grounds of different reminiscences.


MZ: When did your first performance take place, in particular, your philharmonic debut?


GS: I participated in concerts, including those in the Philharmonic Society, beginning with the first year of my studies. And when I was 12, my first solo concert was held at our school. The program there included compositions of Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Liszt, Debussy, Shostakovich. At 14 years of age, I took part in the audition for the Bach Competition and a year later played at the All-Russia and All-Union Contests. After I scored the victory there, I began to appear in my own concerts in the Philharmonic Society.

MZ: We know laureates of two, three and even five Internationals. As for you, having scored victory at such an early age you never participated in competitions again. What’s the reason for that?


GS: To my mind, competitions today have acquired a different meaning from what they were meant to. What’s the main purpose of a performance competition? Today when there are so many young performers, a competition presents the only opportunity for them to gain the right to step onto the professional stage. But performances in competitions do not directly pertain to the profession of a pianist. All kinds of fuss do nothing but harm to art. Therefore I cannot understand the people who, having acquired the opportunity to take up the cause they wanted to devote their life to, suddenly go to some place again to compete with someone. It turns into something sporting. To win, to compete, to emulate - either it is not quite art, or some special sporting kind of art. I believe a musician ought to go through a competition to gain the opportunity to perform. But as soon as he has made his mark with the public, and the victory is won, what else has he to do with competitions? The competition has done its part and it is high time he got down to “business.”

Gregory Sokolov playing at the Tchaikovsky Competition. This victory brought him world fame.

Gregory Sokolov playing at the Tchaikovsky Competition.
This victory brought him world fame.

MZ: What you’ve just said about competitions seems to me one 0 the most correct and sensible considerations to this effect. The Point is that for the performer participating in a competition, if he a truly mature creative personality, it is far from easy to squeeze 1mself into the “bed of Procrustes” of certain limited terms of a competition program. You yourself, after your victory, rid yourself of the necessity to play in a competition again, and thus could choose the programs that were more suited to your interests and creative aspirations, couldn’t you?


GS: Quite right.

MZ: By the way, what are your considerations in choosing a program?


GS: It is very difficult to make up a program. It becomes different every time, sometimes even unexpected.


MZ: What compositions do you think unsuitable to combine in one program?


GS: I’ll confine myself to one example. I would hardly play in one concert the Second and Third Concertos of Rachmaninoff. But in general, I don’t have any set scheme of a program make-up. Usually a program is compiled gradually. Parts of it can be altered.


MZ: Quite recently I’ve heard you perform the Beethoven Seventeenth Sonata (in a television recording). Your interpretation is very unusual; for instance, the second and the third movements sounded much slower, didn’t they?

GS: I know from the reviews that I perform the Seventeenth Sonata somewhat untraditionally. But this “unusualness” does not result from my artificially inventing something; it is dictated by my inner need. As for the tempo, after all, it is only a means of expression.


Obviously, that very special “hearing” of many pieces of the piano literature by Gregory Sokolov is caused by his need for a more profound penetration into very familiar compositions, for a new understanding of them in compliance with his attitude. However, it would be erroneous to put it down to the pianist’s desire for “originality.” That’s just what is absolutely alien to him! And of course the considerably slow execution of certain episodes by Sokolov is not connected with any virtuoso hurdles that have actually never existed for him. Some meticulous critic has counted that Maurizio Pollini plays the Chopin 24 Preludes within 36 minutes and Gregory Sokolov within 48. It is quite a convincing comparison. But at the same time, that very critic points out that: “when Gregory Sokolov was playing the Chopin Etudes, the virtuoso level of the performer seemed just breathtaking.”
Our talk with the artist continued.


GS: I’d like to add how, unexpectedly at times, a composition very reluctant to play the enters one’s repertory. Once I was Beethoven Seventeenth Sonata, probably because of its popularity. It so happened that I began to work at it with my student at the Conservatory (he chose it on his own initiative). And when I “got in touch” with that composition, I realized that it sounded different to me from the way it had previously, how I had used to hear it. And I felt an urgent need to learn it myself.

MZ: Can you describe your perception of the music of the Seventeenth Sonata, and the difference between your treatment of it and the generally accepted one?

GS: It seems to me more dramatic, even tragic. In general, I hold that if the pianist has aroused puzzlement and questions by his interpretation, all subsequent commentaries are of no avail. Do you think it possible to describe the process of performance or even the way you comprehend this or that composition? Is it possible to put into words the music or our intuitive sensations, without distorting their meaning?

MZ: I can’t agree with you. How is the teaching of performance carried out? Is it that you explain to your students your requirements only by resorting to the instrument? In that case, not offering any verbal explanation, you risk rearing only your own kind, imitations of yourself, because, being capable young people, they’ll imitate you unwittingly, whether they want to or not.

GS: Truly talented students will never imitate. But, undoubtedly, teaching is not only showing how; but talks with the pupils either deal with more general things, or are connected with the semantics of the piece. In offering the student a certain verbal characteristic of the musical image, we thrust our own interpretation upon him. It is important to arouse his fantasy, imagination and independence rather than to palm off your own solution.

Gregory Sokolov receives the highest award of the Tchaikovsky Competition from the hands of the Head of the Organization Commettee, composer Tikhon Khrennikov.

Gregory Sokolov receives the highest award of the Tchaikovsky Competition from the hands of the Head of the Organization Commettee, composer Tikhon Khrennikov.

Grigory Sokolov and Emil Gilels
MZ: We’ve just touched upon another very important problem of the art of musical interpretation — the plurality of musical images and the performer’s attitude to the composer s text. Many authoritative musicians made it clear that they adhered to the composer’s text absolutely. Well, it is an indubitable consideration, but many concrete examples suggest how relative it is. Let’s regard, for instance, such point as the markings for repetition in compositions of Bach, Viennese classics composers, romanticists. Is it obligatory to follow them? Many more such examples can be found. In this connection there arises the question of the limits for keeping strictly to the composer’s instructions.

It is an important problem indeed. I am against servile submission to the text. The greatness of the composer’s personality and inspiration, the constant development and mobility of music should not be reduced to the instructions in the text. One should clearly realize the relativeness of the signs that cannot express all the many meanings. One should love what is created and do his utmost to grasp it, with the help of the markings of the text, and realize what is beyond expressing by mere signs; and still “run it through” himself, through his individuality and his own new interpretation.And is the text itself unambiguous? Even when reading the manuscript, different opinions and different treatments of the text may be formed. And what about the changes brought into the text by composers themselves?
The solemn welcome to the winner of the Competition in his native Leningrad. Gregory Sokolov with his teachers (from right to left): Leah Zelikhman and Professor Moisey Khalfin (her husband).

The solemn welcome to the winner of the Competition in his native Leningrad. Gregory Sokolov with his teachers (from right to left): Leah Zelikhman and Professor Moisey Khalfin (her husband).

MZ: Of course, we can recall different variants in the pieces by Chopin who made changes in the galley proof, or Scriabin who, according to the evidence of witnesses, played his own compositions in concerts often deviating from the text that he himself adjusted ...

GS: As to repetitions, I like them and see deep sense and ample dramatic opportunities in them. But formal repetitions are utterly unacceptable to me - either of whole parts or separate notes (incidentally, that is just what often happens with students).

MZ: I absolutely agree with you. In such cases I don’t take it for a repetition of one and the same idea (and usually put it to my students that way) but as continuation of its development.

GS: Yes, of course. But as far as repetitions are concerned, I don’t have any dogmas either. For instance, I repeat the expositions in the Chopin Sonatas. I play the Bach Goldberg Variations with all the repetitions, but in the Bach Second Partita (C minor) I don’t repeat all of them, and it was recorded that way in 1975. True, it was rather long ago and I am not quite sure how I’d handle it now; maybe I’d do the same, maybe not.
In general, dogmas in art are most harmful.
It is absolutely wrong to suppose that having allegedly followed all the instructions of the text, you prove faithful to the composer’s concept. By dogmatically and blindly following the markings in the text you may stray away from the composer and his concept, from the life of the piece, its eternal changeability and plurality of its meaning.


MZ: But where is the boundary between the performer’s permitted freedom and illicit arbitrariness? What is the means to help a young performer to establish that boundary?


GS: As a rule, there are attempts to establish that boundary from outside as a system of outward restrictions. But I am of the opinion that only honesty, the honesty of an artist will prevent crossing that boundary beyond which charlatanism begins.


MZ: Perhaps you’ll find it possible to point to more objective criteria in this respect. Say, the notation of compositions in Bach’s time when the dynamics, articulation and other instructions were almost non-existent, offers the performer much more freedom than when interpreting Beethoven’s Sonatas as, on many occasions, he scrupulously defined the desired character of performance.


GS: Yes, the widespread opinion is that Bach allegedly offers broader possibilities for dynamics, for example, variation in a performer’s reading. But I wouldn’t like to oppose one composer to the other, perhaps because I generally prefer not to interfere with the inexplicable, mainly intuitive process of the approach to a composition. In any case I am against the assumption that turning to Beethoven, for example, the performer knows beforehand that there are things that are beyond his power to alter even if the incentive is quite weighty. If one has “lived through” the piece, tested it many times and feels that it is essential that something be changed, I hold the performer is entitled to do so, right up to the orthography.


MZ: I guess the majority of pianists of the older generation wouldn’t share your somewhat “nihilistic” viewpoint. There still exists the notion of “style” in music, and no matter how relative the definitions, such as “baroque,” “classicism,” “romanticism” might be, they do exist.


GS: I don’t think that music should be divided into “romantic and “classical.” I hold all these subdivisions to have been invented for the convenience of systematizing our knowledge. And really? isn’t Bach’s music romantic? Isn’t Chopin a classic? It is another matter that the composer’s language is different. But even at one and the same time, there exist personalities with different creative views. It all depends on the inner world of the composer.

Grigory Sokolov

Chicago Tribune of January 20, 1975 in the article Music Coming from the Soul wrote about that particularly concentrated state of Sokolov when onstage: “...There is in his manner on the stage something arousing bewilderment.

...It seems that Sokolov tries not to notice the presence of the live audience. At times there is formed an impression that playing in public is not so much a joyful opportunity as a solemn duty, responsibility."

MZ: Will you give examples of your correcting the orthography of the composer’s text at your own discretion?

GS: For instance, I somewhat alter the build-up in the First Sonata of Scriabin.

MZ: It is common knowledge that in the recapitulation, Beethoven often changes the subjects of the main and secondary parts only for the reason that the range of the pianos at that time did not allow making it in the given key exactly the same as in exposition. How do you think it should be played: as it is written by Beethoven or by employing the opportunities offered by contemporary pianos?


GS: I hold both variants equally right. If you play as it is written in the score, you create an atmosphere of sound limits more typical of the instrument of that time. On the other hand, changing the text and repeating the recapitulation exactly, you’d do precisely what Beethoven would have done, had he had the opportunity. He was the one to react most swiftly to the widening range of the instrument.


MZ: What editions do you prefer to work with when performing the compositions of Bach and Beethoven?


GS: I acknowledge only the Urtext. It is awfully annoying when it is difficult to make out where whose marks are. In general, the problem of Urtext is of utmost importance. But there is no such thing as the performance of the Urtext because any performance is a kind of edition. It is no use criticizing the so-called performers’ “editions” in favor of the Urtext. These are two different, in fact incomparable things. Urtext is meant for the understanding of the composer’s message, his intentions; it is meant for the performer to “live through it.” The performers’ edition is one of the means to try to fix the interpretation to a certain extent.


MZ: What’s your attitude to the existing opinion even among eminent pianists that transcription lies beyond the boundaries of the piano repertory?


GS: I do not share it by any means. On the contrary, I play not only the Bach organ choral preludes in my own arrangement, but also transcriptions of vocal compositions — for instance, the Third five-part Motet of Palestrina from The Song of Songs. In general I think no artificial hurdles should be created in music. There should not be any rules invented that would later be in the way. The attitude to everything a pianist does in music ought to be natural.

Gregory Sokolov's hands

Gregory Sokolov's hands

Gregory Sokolov during his first American tour

Gregory Sokolov during his first American tour

" be natural." How important is the idea formulated by Gregory Sokolov for himself as a performer?

Different features have been noted in the performance of the pianist. For example, Sokolov’s playing made a great impression by its virtuoso scope, orchestral character of the tone. Neue Ruhr Zeitung wrote in 1977: “The three parts from the Stravinsky ballet Petruschka are the pieces that make even experienced pianists pale at one glance at the score. Sokolov performed that composition most difficult in the technical sense in such a breathtaking tempo and so confidently that his hands seemed nothing but a sheer white shadow. And the tone was such that you asked yourself if an orchestra could reveal to the listeners more nuances and versatility of inner voices and accompaniment than did Sokolov.”


Other features of Sokolov, the performer, were also pointed to. But evidently the listeners are most particularly delighted with the naturalness of his performing manner, which as we know now is part of his artistic credo. That naturalness finds reflection in the interpretation of most diverse composers. For instance, it helps Sokolov to find his own key to Chopin’s creations.

“In Chopin he can communicate to the audience much more than others,” wrote one of the Bonn critics, “because he does not embellish anything in his repressed, fervent execution, but expresses himself with startling naturalness.”

It should be said that critics in general highly appreciate Sokolov’s art. When I drew his attention to this fact, the pianist reverted to the problem of judging a performer by the critics.


GS: With due respect for the work and art of criticism I can’t help noting that as a rule it suffers from some chronic diseases.


MZ: You have already mentioned one cliché of contemporary criticism at the beginning of our talk.


GS: Unfortunately, it is not the only one. I could name at least two more. It is the biographical approach to the creations of the composer, that is, the direct transfer of the events of the composer’s life into the character of the music created at that time one more cliché: if the pianist plays thoroughly, is described as a performer of the alleged “classical kind”; but if he smudges or plays slovenly, it is the work of an allegedly “romantic” pianist. What nonsense! A musician can play very neatly and be a poet. What really matters is if these flaws "stick out" or not.


MZ: You’ve pointed to the shortcomings of, as I would put it primitive criticism, while to my mind there are more serious deficiencies in the reports of some of our critics. At one time Rachmaninoff said with irony that only music critics could understand a new musical composition on its first hearing and only for the reason that they simply had to write about it. It is one of the most widely spread diseases of criticism — the pronouncement of a judgment (which, when published, becomes a document of a kind, at times denunciatory at that), pronouncement of a sentence after the first hearing of the performance. True, sometimes the critic falls victim to the circumstances: the pianist arrives in the city, gives one concert and the critics are expected to respond. But to what extent are generalizations justified in this case? That’s the question.


GS: That’s a question and a serious one at that — the question of the right to judge. My point of view is as follows: if I feel the performer is dishonest in respect to art, if I fail to believe him, if in his interpretation there are many superficial effects intended for making a success, I am ready to estimate him judging by one performance only. But if I see that he* is an honest musician, sincere in his intentions, who has lived through the music he performs, one should be most careful in his judgment and preferably not on the grounds of one program only.

Grigory Sokolov

Gregory Sokolov

MZ: Since we have gone into the matter of music criticism at such length, what else seems unsatisfactory to you in this respect?


GS: I find it unacceptable to evaluate a performer from the standpoint of the tastes of a certain critic or a certain individual.


MZ: Apparently it is inevitable. It is a person, an individual with his own scale of values, his own taste, who pronounces his judgment. So it is hardly possible to speak of objectivity.


GS: It is not a matter of objectivity — there should be broadmindedness in the approach. And if a critic or a pedagogue cannot say: “It is not exactly my cup of tea, but it is good,” it means that such a pedagogue would nurture pupils in his own image, and such a critic would estimate all performers with one “yardstick” of his views. I believe the tasks of a critic and a pedagogue should coincide in some major points: a performer should be criticized in such a way that it would help him to get rid of whatever hampers the realization of his idea, assuming the idea is of significance.


MZ: You’ve quite rightfully pointed to the analogy of the estimation of a performance by a critic and a pedagogue. A teacher must be a really thoughtful critic of his pupil, a critic whose advice and remarks help the young musician to reveal his talent more vividly. Being a pedagogue, you are sure to know that the potentials of a student are a far cry from his achievements.


GS: That is why I am usually wary of speaking of a student’s talent. There are so many musicians who have left behind them nothing but a lot of talk about their talent! For example, a student Plays badly in his first year, but he is said to be “very talented.” Good. Two years later, he plays no better, but his wonderful talent is still spoken of. So I wonder what will come of that “talented” student in the end. If he is good at playing, I am ready to speak of his talent; if not, apparently, it is possible to speak only of his innate capabilities. He may possess a phenomenal ear for music, a marvelous memory, many other brilliant abilities. But I wouldn’t call it talent; it is a person with a facility for learning. And it is quite a different matter when a person plays the piano well and interestingly, a thinking person, an artist.

Gregory Sokolov at the rehearsal with conductor Dmitry Kitaenko

Gregory Sokolov at the rehearsal with conductor Dmitry Kitaenko

MZ: You are teaching at the Conservatory, so you deal with the pianistic development of a student in the highest stage. What in your opinion are the demands of pedagogics in the initial stage?

GS: I can’t take the liberty of formulating it. I think children’s musical development is of a different kind. There are children’s medical specialists and there are children’s music teachers, the specificity of whose activities does not arouse any doubts. It is most difficult to work with children. Right before the eyes of the pedagogue the pupil’s hands are growing, his organism is being formed. We, the Conservatory teachers, face a student about whose hands it is practically impossible to do anything, or it is dangerous to attempt anyway. In fact, the technical upbringing occurs at school. At least that’s the way it should be. And I feel deep respect for children’s pedagogues, but I’m no expert in it myself. I think
only that children ought not to be forced to study.


MZ: I can’t agree with you. It is common knowledge that there are children with brilliant professional abilities, but lazy and undisciplined, which is not that unnatural for their age. And if they are not “gripped in a vise” they’ll just lose the time and a professional career will become impossible for them. As a matter of fact, there are many examples to prove my point. No one knows how the fate of Lazar Berman and Igor Oistrakh as performers would have turned out had their parents not forced them to study music. Another thing should be taken into consideration: for a child who loves music it may be a treat to play some pieces on the instrument, but children are usually reluctant to work thoroughly at their performance to bring it to the extent of perfection, as it bores them quickly. Possibly you belonged to those rare exceptions for whom a serious artistic attitude to practicing has been typical since early childhood. That is why you express such a “liberal" point of view.

GS: But still, at a certain age there should be a serious, professional attitude towards studies; otherwise nothing will come of it.

MZ: How do you advise your students to study virtuoso pieces — in a slow tempo or in the tempo close to the required one?


GS: There is a school of thought which believes that if a virtuoso piece is studied in a slow tempo for a long time, it will come out well in the end. I doubt it. One can work at a virtuoso piece in the tempo close to the real one. But I put forward this idea not as the only possible and correct one. My six-year pedagogical experience does not permit me to make any all-embracing generalizations. I must admit I don’t find it possible to give any universal recipes. It may be good for one but harmful for another. The student himself must feel how he can achieve something. If he fails to learn it in the five years of the Conservatory, he’ll prove helpless in the future.



MZ: Do you recommend some compositions to your students, or are they in the position to choose their repertory themselves?


GS: My students, as a rule, choose their programs to their liking. The things we ought to study in the Conservatory can be studied in fact just as well in any repertory.

Gregory Sokolov during his talk with Dr. Mark A. Zilberquit

Gregory Sokolov during his talk with Dr. Mark A. Zilberquit

MZ: What are your considerations concerning fingering?

GS: I won’t sound original if I say that the choice of fingering should be first of all prompted by the message latent in the composition, even if it happens to be counter to the seeming simplicity and convenience. But it is not the point I’d like to emphasize. I am sure that a true musician should have all the components, and fingering in particular, interconnected. By the way, it is exactly this lack of interconnection in the command of different elements in playing the piano that is one of the greatest troubles with students.

MZ: On the whole I agree with you. When one hears a complete original performance, it is difficult to break it up into separate components. But for the sake of methods, it can be justified or even indispensable at times. For instance, we often say that a student lacks certain culture of tone; or listening to several students of one pedagogue, we realize that he pays much attention to the beauty and intelligence of tone production.
MZ: Of course, a gifted student needs only guidance in the correct direction, just prompting, drawing his attention to something, but not coaching. After all, not everything can be taught.

Yes, I do believe that no matter how comprehensive the teacher’s help to the student may be, the essential, which is what makes him an individual, he has to grasp for himself. Even in the sense of technique, no matter how meticulously he is shown the most rational devices, how thoroughly his technical development is dealt with, his truly virtuoso achievements are possible only because of his own discoveries, the sensations he finds for himself.


MZ: Have you a large class?

GS: I have four students. But if we speak of pedagogics, I rather prefer a type of teaching such as “Meisterklasse.” I mean lesson-consultations with mature young musicians, an exchange of opinions, so to say. On the whole, my attitude to my pedagogical activities is rather contradictory. It takes too much strength and nerve. And what matters most is the time.

MZ: Does it mean that you are inclined to devote yourself solely to performance?


GS: In general, yes. It is no accident that most concertizing performers do not deal with teaching.

MZ: How is your ordinary working day scheduled?

GS: I don’t follow any rigid regimen. Usually I practice for some six hours in the course of the day, but with intervals. I prefer to practice twice — in the morning and in the evening.

MZ: How early do you begin working?

GS: I can get up very early, but if you’d like to know whether I am an early riser or prefer working in the evening, I’d rather choose the latter.

MZ: Do you warm up before you start practicing?

GS: No.

MZ: How quickly do you learn a composition?

GS: It is difficult to give a simple answer. It all depends on the composition itself. And what do you mean by “learn”? The work at the piece may begin before it is learned with your hands. A piece should be learned as long as is necessary; it must grow naturally. In general I hate fussing. But it has happened that I’ve had to learn a composition in a very short time (that’s the way it was before the competition).

MZ: Commencing your work on a piece, do you strive to memorize it as soon as possible, or do you prefer it to “sink” into your memory naturally, all by itself?

GS: As a rule, I don’t learn a composition purposely. But a natural memorization does not mean being passive.

MZ: If you are going to have a concert, do you practice only the compositions you are supposed to perform?

GS: It depends. As a rule, I do my best to look through the entire program.

MZ: Do you remember any especially memorable concerts, any highlights of your career?

GS: Concerts are like children — they are all dear to you. The point is that every performance takes a piece of your life.

MZ: To what extent do you allow yourself to yield to some unexpected mood, to change the preconceived plan of the performance in the course of the concert?    .

GS: I think changes right on the stage are possible, but it is essential that they match the entire construction, the general concept of the performance.


MZ: In your opinion what are the difficulties of the profession of a pianist and what specific problems did you happen to encounter in your career?

GS: In art everything is difficult. It is a famous truth — in general it is easy to play the piano, but to play well is really difficult. I don’t know if there are any easy professions at all. If one treats his profession in earnest, it cannot and should not be easy.

"I find it unacceptable to evaluate a performer from the standpoint of the tastes of a certain critic..."

"I find it unacceptable to evaluate a performer from the standpoint of the tastes of a certain critic..."

The last phrase of Gregory Sokolov that concluded our discussion involuntarily reminded me of the lines from two reviews of his performances. One of them is from an authoritative West German newspaper, Neue Ruhr Zeitung which wrote: “Sokolov suffers and struggles literally for every note.” The second review is from a modest bulletin published by old Leningrad actors who have given all their life to art and who are now living in the Home of the Veterans of the Stage. The short article was entitled, “For the Forthcoming Concert of Gregory Sokolov.”

“He performed for us on the 29th of September, 1972. A memorable day! The artist shared his talent with us, lavished on us his strength and youth. And now he’ll be here again. And again there is anticipation, excitement ... We are looking forward to hearing the enchanting sounds of Chopin, and inimitable Scriabin will sound again. We are expecting you, dear magician.”

And as such a magician of the piano, Gregory Sokolov remains in the memory of most listeners who have had the opportunity to become familiar with his art.

To the Top
bottom of page