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RECORD KEEPING | Looking For Grigory Sokolov

By Paul E. Robinson on April 25, 2017

Grigory Sokolov

Grigory Sokolov (Photo: EuroArts Music International)

 Grigory Sokolov

Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov, who turned 67 this past week (April 18), remains one of the least-known and least understood of all the great pianists: he gives very few concerts; he has declined all offers to play with orchestras since 2005; he refuses to make studio recordings, and he declines all requests for interviews. It is not surprising that when prominent Russian film and television director Nadia Zhdanova set out to make a documentary on Sokolov, she had no trouble at all getting celebrated Sokolov admirers to participate, but had no luck at all connecting with the pianist himself; hence, the title of the finished documentary — “A Conversation That Never Was.”

In the past few years, Deutsche Grammophon has added enormously to our appreciation of Sokolov with the release of several superb live recordings, including The Salzburg Recital (DG 479 4342) from 2008 and Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata, as well as some shorter pieces (DG 479 5426) from 2013.

Grigory Sokolov CD & DVD

MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major K. 488*. Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor Op. 30**. Also, a DVD titled Grigory Sokolov – A Conversation That Never Was. Grigory Sokolov, piano. Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Trevor Pinnock*. BBC Philharmonic/Yan Pascal Tortelier**. DG 479 7015. Total Time: 71:43 (CD); 58:49 (DVD).

With this current issue, we have two concerto recordings so good that one runs the risk of using up all available superlatives. Sokolov plays Mozart’s K. 488, which was recorded live at the Mozarteum in Salzburg January 30, 2005, in a straightforward classical style — no unusual tempos, no exaggeration of any kind — somehow managing to make every note as fresh as if it were newly minted. One passage in the slow movement, after letter C, literally took my breath away. I have never heard any pianist bring out the arpeggios in the left hand so as to provide a perfect segue to the arpeggios in the bassoon. Hearing it done so well, one can believe that this is exactly what Mozart had in mind.

I have such admiration for Sokolov that I could listen to him play scales all day. You think I’m joking? In the last movement of the Mozart, just listen to the effortless brilliance of the A major scales at bar 502, just before the final tutti. Incidentally, Sokolov plays along with the orchestra in most of the tuttis, as Mozart would have done, and in Trevor Pinnock and the members of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, he has the ideal partners. The orchestra plays splendidly, with Pinnock fully supporting his soloist in both spirit and in detail.

An artist who plays Mozart with such subtlety and finesse would seem to be an unlikely choice to play Rachmaninov’s massive romantic masterpiece, the Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor. And yet, Sokolov proves himself to be superlative in this repertoire too. Technically, he is astonishing and his command of the ebb and flow of the music is almost uncanny. Just listen to the accelerando beginning at letter 12 in the first movement. Sokolov builds the excitement in this passage like no one else in my experience and still has plenty of power left for the climax. Conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier and the BBC Philharmonic do their part to make this passage work, sticking like glue to Sokolov every step of the way as he increases the tempo, all the while making sure not to overwhelm him. Rachmaninov is very clear about this passage in his dynamic markings; at the climax, while the soloist plays fff, most of the orchestra is marked ff, with trumpets and timpani a step lower, at forte. Incidentally, how many listeners are aware that in the very opening of this movement, the piano plays the theme piano, whereas in the recapitulation the same passage is marked pianissimo? Needless to say, Sokolov observes this distinction with great care.

While Sokolov’s playing in the Rachmaninov constantly impresses us with both its virtuosity and attention to detail, it also gives us a rendering of the piece that strikes me as revelatory. While this concerto often seems to be a vehicle for pianistic display and full-throated romantic passion, in Sokolov’s hands it seems darker and, if you will, more dangerous. Beyond the dazzling fingerwork and big tunes, there is a life and death struggle in the music that is often overlooked in routine performances. Rachmaninov, often subject to dark moods verging on despair, expressed these feelings in works like the the Symphony No. 2, the Isle of the Dead, the Trio elegiaque No. 2, the Bells and the Symphonic Dances. This Sokolov performance of the Piano Concerto No. 3 was recorded live at the Royal Albert Hall, London, during the Proms July 27, 1995.

Although there are other fine recordings of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 — Martha Argerich comes immediately to mind in a version from 1982 (Philips 446 673-2) — Sokolov surely plumbs the depths of this piece as few other pianists have done before or since.

Unfortunately, in “The Conversation That Never Was”, the DVD produced in Russia, not only does Sokolov have nothing to say about himself, but the eminent musicians who do appear, while expressing unbounded admiration for him, reveal almost nothing about what makes him unique. Ultimately, some give up entirely searching for the right words and end up quoting Pushkin or Victor Hugo. That said, we do get some precious moments from the 1966 Tchaikovsky Competition where Sokolov took first prize at the age of 16. We also see him live in excerpts from a ferocious 1982 performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3. The DVD includes some readings from the poetry of Sokolov’s wife, Inna Sokolova, who passed away in 2013. Six of her poems also appear in the booklet accompanying the DVD.

Paul E. Robinson

Over the course of his career, Paul Evans Robinson has acquired a formidable reputation as broadcaster, author, conductor, and teacher. He has communicated the joy of music to more than a generation of musicians and music lovers in Canada and elsewhere.

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