Grigory Sokolov - Warsaw - 2 December 2018
Grigory Sokolov by Sulivan Sweetland
As the Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov walks onto Warsaw Philharmonic stage, the suffused lighting of the chandeliers softens his approach and creates space for reflection. I recalled the first time I heard this artist in Warsaw in 1992. I have never forgotten it. The experience has remained with me undimmed ever since. In my literary travel book on Poland much was cut editorially. My account of this particularly memorable Warsaw night elicited this comment from my editor: 'Not famous enough Michael. No-one will know who he is!' Rather a different view now in December 2018 as Grigory Sokolov is widely considered to be the greatest living pianist, a living legend.
I wonder what it is that creates the undoubted magnetism of this modest figure considering his apparently diffident attitude to the audience as he bows and seats himself unceremoniously at the instrument. His supreme mastery of the piano is never in doubt, his profound musicianship acknowledged by all, professional and amateur musicians alike. My recollection of his performance twenty-six years ago flooded into recollected view as he opened his recital with the early Beethoven Sonata in C major, Op.2 No.3 (1795). Forgive the length of this reminiscence but the cultural context of that night contributed so significantly to the poetic ambiance of his performance.
Each year the Kościół Świętego Krzyża (Holy Cross Church) in Warsaw is the site for a concert and ceremony to celebrate Chopin’s birth on March 1 1810. Wreaths are laid at the plaque behind which lies the urn that contains his heart brought from Paris by his sister Ludwika Jędrzejewicz. His body was interred at the Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. It is a small and remarkably moving ceremony. Many private people move forward to lay single blooms or bunches of flowers while the organist plays a festive organ work. Two beautiful children, one a tiny three year old in a red bobble hat, laid a single tulip. This simple ceremony set the tone of nostalgia and melancholy for the day.
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The entrance to the Warsaw Citadel
After I had laid my single red rose I walked to the monumental brick Cytadela (Citadel) on Żoliborz Hill, built by the Tsarist authorities after the November Uprising of 1830 against the Russians. I wanted to immerse myself in the historical source of so much of Chopin's anguished music. Tsar Nicholas I exacted a terrible revenge for being dethroned as King of Poland. The sledges and columns of prisoners soon began to leave for Siberia. The Citadel was built high on the Vistula escarpment to intimidate Warsaw and hold thousands of political prisoners for interrogation, torture and execution. By September 1831 the Kingdom had once again fallen under the Russian yoke and a distraught Chopin wrote in his Stuttgart diary in painful, dislocated sentences
The suburbs in ruins - burnt down - Jaś - Wiluś no doubt died on the ramparts - I see that Marcel has been imprisoned - Oh God, have You not had enough of Moscow's crimes – or – or – You are a Moscovite yourself! …..sometimes I only groan and express my pain on the piano - I am in despair……’.
An undocumented tradition states that he wrote the ‘Revolutionary’ Étude in C-minor and the final tempestuous Prelude in D-minor while in Stuttgart after the fall of Warsaw. Princes and nobles were humiliated and Polish officers in their thousands were exiled to the Caucasus. Intellectuals, agitators and insurrectionists were executed on the steep slopes or in the fosses of the Citadel. The spirit of fierce resistance alternating with hopeless pain and despair are the womb of Chopin's patriotic music, not the salons of Paris although later in his life they too played their part.
It was snowing heavily and -6C as I laboured up the Żoliborz Hill through the neoclassical ‘Execution Gate’ near the site of the gallows that had stood under a broad chestnut tree. A forest of crosses on the wooded slopes marks the place where thousands suffered a miserable death, particularly following the subsequent January Uprising of 1863. After this hopeless gesture tens of thousands of young people were marched to their deaths in Siberia. The nation never recovered. Many of the leaders passed through the Wrota Iwanowskie (Death Gate) and along Death Road into the horrors of Pavilion X.
The approach to the museum in winter is across a bleak, open area with snow-covered cannons, broken bricks and striped sentry boxes. A black wagon used for collecting prisoners around Warsaw for transport to Siberia was parked negligently at the entrance. The museum contains fascinating documents, tickets of incarceration, chessmen made of bread, prisoner's photographs (the Tsarist police would shave off half the hair, moustache and beard to mark a convict and so prevent easy concealment). So many men of brilliant intelligence and creativity perished here between 1822 and 1925. My friend Irena who is a custodian says she is distinctly aware of the metallic smell of blood in the corridors. Paintings, daguerreotypes and photographs record endless lines of tattooed, tattered prisoners - portraits of men of striking intelligence and sensibility - heading off on foot into the icy wastelands. The prisoners were forced to walk some five thousand kilometres from Warsaw to Siberia, a journey on foot that took eighteen months if you managed to survive. Wealthy families riding on a sledge might be permitted to accompany the condemned men. At the Siberian camp men were chained permanently night and day to their wheelbarrow, sleeping with this ghastly succubus and finally dying upon it. I slipped on the frozen cobbles of Death Road.
Chopin Museum Warsaw
It was against this historical background I was to listen to a Chopin recital in the Chopin Museum given by the great Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov. He had been almost fiercely recommended to me by a lady who worked for the Chopin Society. 'You cannot possibly miss this recital Michael!' Electricity was in the air. The audience was the customary group of elderly Central Europeans with the ravages of high culture etched into their faces together with the ubiquitous Japanese music students. The instrument was placed near the serliana under a blazing chandelier in the very small concert room at the top of the museum. Sokolov emerged from the artist's door and walked to the piano. He was most unprepossessing in appearance - a bearish Russian figure with rather muscular hands.
Within a few seconds of the impassioned opening bars of the C sharp minor Polonaise Op.20 No.1, I knew I was in the presence of true greatness, playing of profound spiritual intensity and technical achievement. The cantabile yearning love melody that forms the centerpiece of the work was intensely lyrical. The passionate, patriotic nature of Chopin, the revolutionary fervour carried one away. We passed through a programme of brooding extremes, from a group of mazurkas haunted by rural nostalgia, through a selection of tempestuous Op.10 Études to the tragic nobility of the symphonic F-sharp minor Polonaise with its brutal, repetitive, military central section which linked me directly to the Citadel, a military snare drum approaching, passing, retreating. He received a standing ovation and spectacular bunches of flowers (a charming tradition of all concerts in Poland).
Placing them to one side of the music desk he then launched into the mighty twelfth Étude from the Op.25 set. There is something frightening in his intensity, the deeply disturbing feeling of a man in touch with the pure creative force of Nature. For the first and perhaps last time in my life, I went to the green room and spontaneously embraced an artist, so moved had I been. He rewarded me with a warm smile. The greatest living pianist to my mind. I stumbled out into the snow in a temperature around -10C in a dazed tumult of emotion to make my way home to my workplace accommodation, a dilapidated building I had come to conceive of as 'the forest prison'.
* * * * * *
In view of the above written twenty-six years ago I cannot escape thinking of this present recital as a remarkable gesture of cultural redemption by this great Russian pianist. The sonata Op.2 No.3 (1795) is conceived on a grand scale as a public demonstration in many ways of Beethoven's tremendous pianistic and compositional skills - understandable motivations in a young twenty-four year old man of genius.
It opens rather in the manner of a reflective string quartet but this soon develops into rather symphonic opulence resembling a transcribed concerto. Sokolov presented us with a more thoughtful than truly declamatory and symphonic movement in tempo and dynamic contrasts. Sir Andras Schiff finds this movement humorous in its opening phrases but I really cannot imagine a great deal of humour in Sokolov's playing at any time, although his personality always shines with joyfulness and good humour in the green room. He closed this highly effective opening movement in the concerto style with a superbly executed cadenza and long trill.
He made the Adagio into a sublime statement, deeply moving and profoundly philosophical. Harmonically the movement is almost shockingly adventurous. The utterance is for me highly dramatic with its silences pregnant with meaning, bursts of angry fortissimo following or rather interrupting emotionally the reflective and poetic, operatically Mozartian, almost Romantic cantabile. This was a magical interweaving of contrasting voices, evoking intense intellectual emotions.
Sokolov, as might be expected, was exhilarating in the Scherzo: Allegro with lightness of touch and tone reminiscent of the greatest artists of the previous century - wonderful finger dexterity and ravishing sound production. He returned in the fourth Allegro assai movement to the more orchestral effects inherent in the sonata rondo form but more emphatically than at the outset of the sonata. We had another brilliantly articulated cadenza but with the added attraction of the renowned triple trill, a technical accomplishment for which Beethoven had achieved fame.
The rarely performed in recital Eleven Bagatelles Op. 119 were not conceived or composed by Beethoven as an integrated cycle of 'Trifles'. Their history is of interest in light of the more popular sets. In the summer of 1822 the Leipzig publisher Carl Friedrich Peters asked Beethoven to offer him some Bagatelles for piano. After some procrastination he sent Op.119 Nos: 1-6 (at the time he was rather preoccupied composing the Ninth Symphony and the Missa solemnis). Peters, in language surprising for us when Beethoven is now considered one of the greatest of musical geniuses, rather ruthlessly wrote:
‘I have had them played by several people and not one of them will believe me that they are by you. I asked for Kleinigkeiten, but these are really too small, and in addition most of them are so easy that they are unsuitable for more advanced players, and for budding pianists there are from time to time passages that are too difficult … Perhaps my expectations were too high, for I imagined small appealing things, which, without having any great difficulties, are nevertheless friendly and attractive—in short, things where the artist would show that it’s also possible to write small things that make an effect etc. In order not to be misunderstood, I will say no more about it, other than that I will never print these Kleinigkeiten, but will rather lose the fee I have already paid.’
Muzio Clementi , always the perceptive businessman and musician, published them in London as Trifles for the Piano Forte, Consisting of Eleven pleasing Pieces Composed in Various Styles by L. Van Beethoven. They are eloquent fragments, the type in architecture one might find in a landscape garden constructed in le style anglais, pieces scattered in the park like a ruined Gothic tower, rustic seat or picturesque pond. Under Sokolov's fingers, regarding the musical effect he produced, I cannot possibly improve on the appreciative description in the Berlin Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung of these 'miniatures' when the series first appeared in a German edition:
‘A rapid glance shows us eleven pieces of music on a small scale; but an infinite amount lies bewitched in their magic circle! They contain few musical words, but much is said with them—as every initiated person will willingly believe; for is Beethoven not altogether a musical Aeschylus in energetic brevity? To us these eleven bagatelles seem veritable little pictures of life.’
Portrait of a Young Girl Wilhelm Cotta (German -1822-56)
1. G minor. Allegretto
2. C major. Andante con moto
3. D major. A l'Allemande
4. A major. Andante cantabile
5. C minor. Risoluto
6. G major. Andante — Allegretto
7. C major. Allegro, ma non troppo
8. C major. Moderato cantabile
9. A minor. Vivace moderato
10. A major. Allegramente
11. B♭ major. Andante, ma non troppo
I cannot examine each Bagatelle in detail here save to say Sokolov performed them with grace, humour and charm when required (3,6), elegiacally (1,11), childishly pure and innocent on occasion (2,4,7,9,10), sometimes with a touch of brooding darkness (5), emotionally haunting in advanced harmony foretelling future developments (8) but always communicating a deeper feeling and hints of a serious world beyond the 'light' domain which they were ostensibly depicting. Mozartian compositions at times. He is able to elevate the 'Trifles' far beyond what this title might indicate. They reveal an entirely unaccustomed human, blithe and lighter scale to the personality of Beethoven rather than that of the Promethean creator. What an improviser he must have been at the piano!
Sokolov now embarked on the Schubert 4 Impromptus (op. post. 142) D 935 (1827).
Franz Schubert by Gabor Melegh 1827
When listening to these works it is interesting to reflect that during his lifetime Schubert was above all lauded for his glorious Lieder (an astonishing 640 of them), dance music (a passion during the Biedermeier period) and smaller piano works. Works considered of fundamental significance today were not so appraised in early nineteenth century Vienna.
So many of the larger works we are familiar with - piano sonatas, symphonies, chamber music and operas were rather unknown except to some of his literary friends, lyric poets, the cognoscenti and 'obedient rebels'. Perhaps Sokolov wanted to demonstrate to us the profound influence Beethoven had on Schubert as a composer, the writer of ravishing songs but living in the shadow of one he considered a musical Prometheus.
Legends proliferated around both composers. In 1863 during the exhumation of both bodies from Vienna's Währing Cemetery, it was observed (rather absurdly to my mind) by a friend of Beethoven's, the Austrian physician and medical researcher Gerhard von Breuning, that
'...it was extremely interesting physiologically to compare the compact thickness of Beethoven's skull and the fine almost feminine thinness of Schubert's, and to relate them, almost directly, to the character of their music.'
There is a psychological tension that erupts between Schubert's inner personal lyricism and the harsh outer reality of the Vienna of the day, expressed within many of his compositions for piano. In a letter to his brother Ferdinand in July 1824, he wrote of his 'fateful recognition of a miserable reality, which I endeavour to beautify as far as is possible by my imagination [Phantasie] (thank God)'
The title Impromptu originated with the Bohemian composer Václav Tomášek and was brought to Vienna by his pupil Jan Voříšek around 1818. The term described rather easy and light characterful pieces for cultivated amateurs to perform. Schubert adopted this title for this collection, not originally assigned to these works by him but by his publisher Haslinger. Perhaps he was attracted by the idea of spontaneity in composition. Schubert may also have wished to communicate a sense of carefully structured poetic improvisation. Listening to the poetic richness of these works, one is inescapably reminded of his Lieder. Perhaps Sokolov wanted to link in some motivational compositional, stylistic or close chronological manner the Beethoven Bagatelles and Schubert Impromptus in this programme. Both sets of works were composed almost at the same time and originally considered 'light' but are now considered to possess far deeper significance and resonance.
The magic dust and glowing tone in Schubert that Sokolov spread before us, like a marvelously variegated carpet of layered sound, was present from the very first chords of the first Impromptu in F minor: Allegro moderato. The moderate tempo and varied dynamic weight he brings to each finger in the melodic repeated chords produces a perfectly calculated and luminous cantabile, a yearning song that wings effortlessly above the flat land created by the left hand accompaniment. His phrasing and breathing, the nuances he discovers, explore the genius of the composition as a variety of inspired literate speech, a message reflecting deeply on life, taking us into spiritual communion with the composer, a comprehensible musical language carrying profound meaning. This otherworldliness never deserts him. Sokolov elevates such works into true masterpieces.
Seamlessly entering the second in A-flat major: Allegretto the tenderness, refinement and delicacy he bought to it were remarkably moving. The lustrous tone as the work develops from minuet into the Trio was never exaggerated during the extraordinary variety of dynamics he can command - purely expressed, affecting emotion offered to us through those glorious harmonic progressions.
In the third in B-flat major: Andante we are in the realm of a familiar melody, the renowned set of variations on a theme that offers to the heart the melody Schubert borrowed from his incidental music to the play Rosamunde, reminiscent also of the slow movement of his A minor string quartet, D804. The third variation is more disturbed and in the minor key. Clouds pass over the winter sun in the fourth variation which for me under the guidance of Sokolov contemplates the darkness beyond this life but never entirely gives way to future pessimism. The fifth variation was like the last dancer in a ballroom, in his sleepy dream he contemplates past joys in soft reflected nostalgia. The coda presented by Sokolov is a slow resignation to fate in a mood of simple and sublime acceptance.
The last Impromptu in F minor : Allegro scherzando has the flavour of Hungary with strong off-beat accents that make one want to dance. Rushing scales abound in flourishes, but it is as if Sokolov purposefully avoids all the temptations of sheer flash and show, any crass display of energy and 'technique', that so tempts young pianists just for the sake of it in this impromptu. Moments of piano reflectiveness and spiritual inwardness alternate and are contrasted with the more strenuous ostentatious sections. His 'interpretations' (far more than this word indicates) are always deeply thought through with inspired musical logic. The return of the opening theme, like a faraway friend reappearing as the work moves towards its conclusion, was truly magical, carrying one away, out of this world of mundane reality.
The whole set of these impromptus was presented in such a deeply thoughtful manner we are mysteriously transported directly into the realm of the composer's beauty and inspiration. We travel towards this sublime connection unencumbered by mere material obstacles as the piano or even the pianist himself. A seemingly direct connection. There is always with Sokolov a revelation of internal detail and perceptive musical penetration which both moves the heart and astonishes the mind. Yet here was not the exuberance of youth but the product of mature and deepest philosophical reflection. A lifetime of contemplation of these pieces has produced spiritual intensity of the greatest refinement. This is the one of the rarest qualities possessed by Grigory Sokolov. This and musical and personal integrity of the highest order, simplicity of conception, the dissolution of the ego and a lifetime of devotion to supreme musical truths. In the final analysis it is character that determines the status of a virtuoso pianist and musician. Yes, this is the difference. He is what in the time of Tolstoy, Gogol and Dostoevsky was referred to as a 'Russian Soul'. There are pianists and there is the man Sokolov...
Always so generous with his encores, we first had another superb Impromptu by Schubert, the fourth in A-flat major. A passionately lyrical cascade like a mountain stream tumbling over boulders, an eloquent cantabile melody, clouds pass over sunlit alpine pastures as shadows fitfully form. This work is surely a celebration of unspoilt Nature with brief dramatic outbursts of anger in the minor key as grim reality intrudes but is then finally overcome. Sokolov then displayed his remarkable command of the harpsichord idiom, even adding another dimension to it though the medium of the piano, Les Sauvages by Rameau. Another piece by Schubert, the Hungarian Melody in B minor D. 817. This magnificent small piece only became known to the public a century after his death. What a performance of a Magyar dance this was! Schubert taught music to the daughters of Count Esterházy at their summer home at Zseliz - and was troubled by his rising temperature of affection for the daughter Caroline. Here he was naturally introduced to Hungarian and gypsy music which, after this work was composed in 1824, inflected his style.
The fourth was another work by Rameau, Le Rappel des Oiseaux, where being a harpsichordist with a feather-light keyboard, I marveled at his crisp as lettuce ornamentation. His fifth encore (he always generously gives six) was I think a Chopinesque Prélude by Scriabin. Finally a quite extraordinary work by Debussy Des pas sur la neige (Footprints in the Snow) from his first book of Préludes (1909-10). In the sorrow and isolation of this work, the extraordinary use Debussy made of modes, dissonance and resolution, Sokolov penetrated the soul until the extraordinary flickering from piano to pianissimo as the work fades into the ether. Never have I heard a pianissimo scarcely audible yet pregnant with metaphysical tremor and atmosphere. One cannot help but reflect on what this work was expressing for Sokolov personally at that moment.
Standing ovation from the packed hall not only for the formal recital but for every encore that followed it.
Ah yes, yet again twenty-six years later I stumbled out into a damp and frosty Warsaw night in a dazed tumult of emotion, overwhelmed once more by the rarest degree of pianism.
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here
Shakespeare Henry V - St. Crispin's Day Speech
 Fryderyk Chopin : A Diary in Images Mieczysław Tomaszewski trans. Rosemary Hunt (Warsaw 1990) 92