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But perhaps nobody, even the most astute professionals, even his teachers and their teacher, did not guess that right before our eyes the great pianist of the late 20th and the early 21st centuries was born. 

Grigory Sokolov and His Aura

Alexander Yablonsky

The year of 1966. China sees the beginning of the “Great proletarian cultural revolution” proclaimed by the Communist Party’s plenary session. The so called “Red guardsmen” set to their ignoble business.

New York sees the first night of Cabaret.

I graduate from the Conservatory and, despite being offered a postgraduate course, join (forcefully, of course) the Soviet Army. At first I perceived that development   as ruin for all my vital plans and aspirations, but later on I realized that He had smiled at me. Music never left me, yet the lesson I received turned out an excellent one.   

In Yugoslavia, Milovan Djilas is set free.

In the USSR, Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuri Daniel are sentenced to seven and five years in prison, respectively. Which is fare, isn’t it, since Article 70 of the Russian Federation Criminal Code was in force. Which, in turn, could be used for imprisoning each and every one.

In France, the film A Man and a Woman by Claude Lelouch is released. Quite a revelation, that.

Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin signs a protocol with Fiat Company on the construction of an automobile plant. Domestic motorists were soon to become happy owners of cars that would have been long outdated yet stunning in their quality as compared with the Soviet car, Moskvich.

Mao swims along the Yangtze River. He swims quite well. Yet he does not fly (1).

John Lennon meats Yoko Ono.

The First Prize at the Third International Tchaikovsky Competition is won by a Leningrad resident, nine-grader of the famous Desyatiletka (2), a pupil of Lia Ilyinichna Zelikhman, Grisha Sokolov.   

Leonid Brezhnev gets elected Secretary General of the Communist Party. 


Grigory Sokolov

The triumph of a Leningrad schoolboy at the Tchaikovsky Competition was a sensation. Such things had never been and could not be. It was Moscow that monopolized the right to provide the country and the world with prize-winning pianists. Reasons for that were numerous, but the main one had to do with the Soviet rulers’ conviction that all of the best things must belong to “the capital of the world first Socialist state,” as comrade Kalinin (3)  once replied to Leningrad Conservatory professors’ complaints that all of the best things had been taken away from them by Moscow. (In fact, the central government had wrung provinces out not only of food but also of talent). Therefore, forced selection was inevitable and, indeed, the best musicians, voluntarily or not, were finding themselves in the vicinity of Kremlin, for it was the only possible way to join the performing elite. On the other hand, everything competitive from the banks of the Neva River had been screened at all kind of selection stages, since all selection boards had always been dominated by the Moscow professorate (Leningrad was usually represented by P. A. Serebryakov, but he had had neither chance nor desire nor skills to confront the opinions of the distinguished Muscovite majority). The jury had usually been comprised of outstanding musicians but often they failed to be unbiased when their own pupils were judged, especially considering that the latter were also of the highest levels. This permanent, if somewhat artificial, leadership of Moscow schools, primarily in the art of piano, created in Leningrad musicians an inevitable inferiority complex, a feeling of being second-rate, which had nothing to do with either the actual situation (and Sokolov’s victory exposed the fact – it erupted!) or the historical traditions. As a matter of fact, Russian pianism actually came out of the “overcoat”(4)  of Theodore Leshetitsky, who had worked in Petersburg for over 25 years. Thus, the avowed leader of the most powerful Moscow school, Vasily Safonov, was one of the great students of the great Leshetitsky. The Petersburg school was split up into two major areas – that of Anna Yesipova, Leshetitsky’s pupil (and his second wife), and that of Leonid Nikolaev, a pupil of Leshetitsky’s pupils, Vladimir Pukhalsky and Vasily Safonov. It is worth mentioning that not only Russian but worldwide pianism came out of the same “overcoat”: Ignacy Paderewski and Arthur Schnabel, Alexander Brailovsky and Gottfried Galston, Ignaz Friedman and Ossip Gabrilowitsch, Samuil Maikapar and Mark Hambourg, Michael Zadora and Isabelle Vengerova: what a constellation! 

If we venture to draw a genealogical tree of Leshetitsky’s pupils and his pupils’ pupils (his musical grandchildren, as it were) and his musical great-grandchildren and so on, we’ll see that virtually all acknowledged pianists and pedagogues are in some way or other alumni of the Petersburg-Leningrad school. Including Tchaikovsky Competition winners.


Grisha Sokolov’s victory at the Third Tchaikovsky Competition was certainly a sensation.  Not only was he a Leningrader but also but a nine-grade (sic!) student. Of course, we favored Grisha, though many of us – not I! – silently preferred Misha Dichter, for the young American seemed more talented, bright, and emotionally charged – such a new Cliburn (especially being a pupil of the same famous Rosina Lhévinne). I don’t know about the Leningraders, who are great devotees of their hometown, but the Muscovites were most certainly rather disappointed by Sokolov’s victory than otherwise. It was Dichter’s victory that was anticipated. Or rather, they did not so much desire that the winner would be Misha Dichter or Edward Auer or Alexandr Slobodianik or Victor Eresko, as they expected Sokolov’s defeat. They simply didn’t take him seriously because of his being so young and, more importantly, a Leningrader. It was that old and inveterate rejection by the capital city of anything coming from the banks of the Neva River; an echo of the Stalinist repressions of 1929-30 in Leningrad. Even at the first round he was met with open malevolence, not so much from professional musicians as from the official and para-musical media. He was labeled as “immature”, “unaccomplished musician”, “no more than an advanced apprentice”, etc. But neither such periods by female critics nor the suppression by the official media of his first round performance (every other pianist was covered in detail while there was not a word about Sokolov, as if he didn’t exist at all); nor such prejudice as is unthinkable at a competition where the second and third rounds were still ahead; nor the atmosphere of supercilious scorn and discredit, none of these had any effect upon the level of Grigory Sokolov’s performance at all stages of the competition – a level most high, amazingly consistent, with a crescendo towards the third round. A mere boy, a bit of a clodhopper, as he remains stuck in our memories of the time, proved a real fighter. Most importantly, even then, being but 16 years old, he demonstrated and proved what later on would be said of him, “He plays neither for the public [nor, I would add, for the jury or critics] nor for himself, but for the sake of music.” 

He has since also demonstrated that he possesses good memory. He never performs in the capital of Russia. He does not perform in Russia at large, only making – having made – an exception for his hometown once a year, although even that rear opportunity for Leningraders and his sincere admirers who have travelled from Moscow especially for his recitals had in the recent years been (temporarily) closed. It is amazing how aggravating with time is the Motherland’s ability to repel her best children. Another one of those, a remarkable and unique musician, Evgeny Kissin, has not crossed her borders for a long time.

I remember how we were sitting in a smoking-room on the top floor gallery of the Leningrad Conservatory Lesser Hall listening to radio coverage of the competition closing and the announcing of its outcome. When they announced the name of the winning pianist there was a hailstorm of delight but also a kind of confusion, something akin to disappointment or perplexity. It was a sensation, to be sure, but a strange and subdued one, as though of only local significance. Rumor had it that it was Emil Gilels, chairman of the piano jury, who insisted on awarding the first prize to Sokolov. It was so and yet not quite so: true, Gilels understood better than anybody else the level of the boy’s talent and skill, he alone foresaw his great future and was far from concealing that divination, but he was not the only one who made the decision. There were 16 votes in favor of G. Sokolov as the first prize winner while in favor of M. Dichter, only three and E. Auer, one. Yet the popular opinion still ascribed the main credit (or blame) to Gilels. We in “our pianistic clan” idolized him. His opinion was always undisputed. Somebody, to the contrary, poked the great musician’s back with an umbrella while he was walking down the aisle of the Great Conservatory Hall after the results were announced; rumor even has it that somebody flung tomatoes at him when he came out to street. I did not see the latter development, but in the arguments pro and contra Sokolov or Dichter the buttons came off the foils in earnest, and that’s the truth. We the Leningraders and Gilelsians rejoiced. And yet… And yet something was preventing us from giving ourselves up to full-blown exaltation. Cliburn, Ogdon were all right – and all of a sudden a 16-year-old boy… People were astonished at Sokolov’s giftedness, but even more so at his wonderful skills and techniques, in other words, they rather spoke of Lia Ilyinichna Zelikhman, his pedagogue (an outstanding one indeed), of the unquestionable triumph of that school of Leningrad, and in general Soviet, musicianship where the winner belonged. Naturally, he was foretold to have a remarkable future in the profession.  

But perhaps nobody, even the most astute professionals, even his teachers and their teacher, did not guess that right before our eyes the great pianist of the late 20th and the early 21st centuries was born.  

Russian author Stanislav Rassadin once expressed this seditious and unexpected but quite believable thought concerning the parents of Russian national poet Alexander Pushkin, “…aah! – it’s rather frightening to think what would’ve happened had Nadezhda Osipovna failed to conceive by Sergei Lvovich at that fixed hour, precisely the one, which made it possible for their genius offspring to be right on time and never late.” To be right on time and never late, to hit that short historical moment which shaped his inner spiritual world – not only as the great poet (Mother Nature and the Almighty took care of that) but as a person who defined us as a nation and our culture in the broadest sense of the concept – “culture as a cultivated environment of cultivated people” (as opposed to, and in contrast with, the natural environment); “our” here means “Russian” but first of all Petersburgean; as a creator of our notion of the beautiful, of harmony as true freedom; as a maker of the taste of freedom whose personification he himself was. The said moment – from the beginning of the century till 1825, the year of the failed Decembrist revolt – the moment of the awakening and soaring of the chivalric sense of honor, the cult of personal dignity, the perception and awareness of self-worth of the person and of the estate they belonged to, the estate that broke out of the age-old arrogance of the boyars and took to heart the good of the fatherland as the only dignified purpose of life; the moment of an attempt to achieve the utopian ideal of aristocratic nobleness  and nobility’s predestination to be the supreme spiritual shepherd for Russia; the attempt, even though doomed (the year of 1825 cut short those captivating illusions), still coming the closest to that ideal, produced at that moment the air, the spirit of freedom, of true aristocratism and dignity that Pushkin had sufficient time to breathe in. Had he been born fifteen years earlier or later, would he have been a great poet? He sure would. Such a poet as the genius Lermontov was (and is) or the most talented and noble Baratynsky or Batyushkov. Perhaps he would have been better than these and many others. BUT! It is we who would have been different. Rassadin is right.

Now is not comparing Pushkin with Sokolov an exaggeration? Well it is! It is an exaggeration both in comparing the persons (not only in their artistic scales or archetypes) and in comparing also the epochs. An exaggeration it is, but not a distortion. Had Grigori Sokolov been born even fifteen years earlier or later, he still would have been a great pianist, a most profound musician; a powerful, nay, one of the most significant figures in the world of musical performance, but he would have been different; his human character would have been different: neither better nor worse, just different; our interrelations – those of performer and audience – would have been different; our expectations would have been different; we ourselves would have been different. And the point here is not even in that Sokolov might have had different teachers and peers, though that is quite important, too, for his teachers, L. I. Zelikhmsn at school and M. Ya. Khalfin at Conservatory, were not just outstanding but in a unique way correlating with his talent and individuality and to the utmost degree akin to his entire make-up. Yet the most important thing would have been missing: the most rare luck of one random thing, the birth, coinciding with another, the coming out of the blue of the vent-hole in our history; the coincidence of two principles, a subjective one and, well, also subjective, for one cannot possibly characterize the 1960’s otherwise (social development in Russia is not subject to objective laws). That happy coincidence, that era of the 1960’s that was miraculously woven together out of diverse rags, the era “in which his maturation had chanced to be happening, that double surprise of fate worked together to finally bring forth such objectivity as our notions of the purpose of arts, of the beautiful, of what good taste and harmony are all about.” Thus Rassadin of Pushkin; thus I also of Sokolov. For that is no exaggeration, no stretch. And one could not possibly put it better.

G. Sokolov was born in 1950. In 1953, the cockroach (5) kicked the bucket and was for some time laid in a little box alongside the ever-living one (6).  Thus Grigori Lipmanovich Sokolov for some time caught a whiff of the atmosphere of fear and horror but did not partake of it or get saturated with it due to his infancy. The Kafkaesque world was being edited and reformatted. It assumed less phantasmagoric forms. People began to come back from prisons and labor camps. The sense of something fresh was in the air. Different families reacted to that development differently. It is worth mentioning that the members of intelligentsia were less sagacious than the common people. My mother, for one, wept on May 5 (7). All her female apartment mates gathered together and, having forgotten their age-old strives, were sitting on her bed (it was morning), embracing each other, and wailing. On the other hand, our relatives’ housemaid, a typical hard-working, half-educated country woman, reacted differently. “Croacked, did he?” she said. “That’s nice, cur's death for a cur.” The grown-ups were talking about it in perplexity, with fear and in a whisper. However, as far as I know, Leningrad populace were closer to “general population” than Muscovites, and such a mass epidemic of grief and madness as grasped Moscow was not felt there. Of the latter, stories were abound of mourning meetings at the unions of writers and composers, at research and educational institutions of Moscow, where speakers of both sexes would come to podiums, open their mouths and start wailing. Their grief was sincere and irrepressible; “Oh how are we to do without him?! Or our wretched children! What are their sins that they are thus afflicted?” Peter (8) did not see this kind of mass hysteria. The majority were not so much in grief as in fear, in the habitual sickly fear lest the worse comes to the worst. But it could not get any worse; there was just no more room for the worst. Things cannot be worse than that in principle. But our people are “optimists,” they say, “Yes they can.” They said, “Stalin knew nothing, they concealed it all from him, he would not have allowed it.” Well, Stalin was no more, but Beria (9) and Malenkov (10) and others were. Of course, the main Cheka man was soon done away with. Malenkov, on the other hand, was loved of the country folks; he eased up the collective farmers’ hardships; he gave permission to raise cattle at their individual farmsteads (Khrushchev later took the cattle away from them); he was talked of in queues, at marketplaces, in bathhouses, etc. as of a savior; in some cottages, his photo was displayed next to an icon. The nation could not, and still in the 21st century cannot imagine its existence without some kind of deity, a chief, a kingpin of the jail cell kind… Yet at that time, the anticipation of horror was beginning to gradually dissipate. In many families (though not in the majority) the death of the Supreme Horticulturist and Pruner (11) was met with quiet, and sometimes loud, joy. When visiting each other people would bring along wine and celebrate. “At long last!” Everyone was waiting to see what next. Then, the article On Sincerity in Literature by Vladimir Pomerantsev got published. What, one would think, was so special about it? It was written in a decent language, by a decent writer who declared nonsensicality of what got to be called “varnishing the truth,” of topicality of literature as a prerequisite for its existence in the mind of reader, of the criteria of its morality, of the tasks that the Soviet writer faced when portraying the Soviet reality. The article was absolutely orthodox, with not so much as a hint at freethinking or aesthetic pretentiousness, but of good sense. After the zombie-like era of languid critique it was a revelation. The issue of Novy Mir where it was published got sold out in no time, urban intelligentsia of all strata were gathering at the homes of that magazine’s subscribers in order to read the article out loud; they could hardly believe it was legally published; they were delighted, perplexed, and frightened.

Then, again in Novy Mir, L. Leonov’s novel The Russian Forest was slated; it was yet another sensation: what, Leonov himself, a Stalinist-untouchable! On the first anniversary of the mustachioed one’s death, newspaper articles were calm, with no heroic exaltation or a mix of tears and snot spread all over the face or nationwide grief; the next year, it was barely mentioned. And again, perplexity, fear, anxiety.        Poet Constantine Simonov called for applying all forces of pen and talent to the magnifying, immortalizing, and comprehension of the Great Leader’s deeds, but he was being called to order and later on, in 1958, was exiled to Central Asia with the mission of revitalizing local literary life. The fact was known and discussed. Then E. Kardin publicly opined that the Aurora (12) did not fire her shot. These things were stupefying and gave hope. Then again, The Thaw by I. Erenburg. Then, V. Dudintsev: the issue of the Roman-Gazeta magazine where his novel Not by Bread Alone was published could not be got by any means. Such a level of crazy excitement was not even enjoyed later on by A. Solzhenitsyn. The novel was rather primitive but it touched upon what was present in almost everybody’s life. Before the time of the terrifying and stupefying truth revealed by V. Shalamov and the mighty prowess of One Day in the Life on Ivan Denisovich, whose author showed his character’s best day in what was not the worst part of the inferno, this was a revelation of genius, because the worse days could not then be comprehended by a sane being (just as Shalamov was at first rejected by both his Motherland and the West, for human psyche needed decades to be able to adapt to the horrors of the Stalinist era; it is in our time that Shalamov is revered as a classic who has overshadowed his fellow inmate and Nobel Prize winner, but that also took decades). The loyalist Dudintsev, having caught the trend, prepared the society for a talk about what everybody actually knew anyway but could not even think of discussing, especially openly, especially, moreover, in the way the wise Paustovsky did (13). And yet, even so timid a preparation was akin to an awaken volcano. And then there thundered Khrushchev’s report (14). Of course, the cheered up population was soon given a cold shower, first with Hungary invasion of 1956 and then with “pederasts” – the dinner at the Khrushchev’s dacha with writers which ended up in scandal and defamation… Yet, something irreversible did happen in people’s minds. Some internal gun got unlimbered.

I do not know what the Sokolovs were reading, arguing about, rejoicing in, afraid of, or worshipping among them. Were they packing in anticipation of an imminent deportation (15) or hoped it would spare them? In any case, in May of 1953 they must have sighed a relief. One thing is certain: Grigory Sokolov had been developing during that short period of Soviet history which I would call «Socialism with a human face» (not to be confused with the dissimilar but similarly labeled phenomenon in Czechoslovakia). The face of “our” Socialism was sometimes attractive, sometimes funny, but more often disgusting, even horrible, which is understandable – it was a human face, but that of Socialism. And yet, human. As opposed to the ominous muzzle of the earlier monster or the later death mask of the corpse, not mentioning the 21st century which we entered with a senseless snout of a frightened primate. The said period could not but influence the development of Sokolov’s personality, and particularly this notion of personality, and in this case, the case of a great phenomenon in arts, is not less (perhaps even more) important than musical talent, professional competence, etc. Whatever mood dominated in the Sokolov family and their milieu, the atmosphere of awakening, expectations, and comprehension was absolutely characteristic of any family of Leningrad intelligentsia; I am positive on that, for it was inevitable.  On the other hand, this timid land-cleaning, this superficial yet efficient disinfection produced qualitative change in that temporary space which Grigory Lipmanovich entered in the 60’s. That space became absolutely different from what is had been only recently, in the mid- and even late 50’s. The Conservatory became different. The Desiatiletka became different. Even the professors who by sheer chance had not been expelled became different, not to mention those who had but now were coming back. Walking along the passages, at ease and without keeping low profile, were great musicians whose names quite recently had better not been mentioned even in vain. Even if it were the name of a great composer, such as D. Shostakivich. Accordingly, the student body revitalized too. The concert scene became different. Glenn Gould discovered Russia for himself. The stupendous success of Van Cliburn showed that Gould’s triumph was no exception. In short, things got going. I don’t remember such an influx of names, including the very great ones, in any other decade.


Three giants, Shostakovich, Sofronitsky, and Yudina, each to their own degree, represent the school of Nikolaev. If we recall Nikolaev’s words, the brilliant words, “School is what they go out of,” then those three are gone out of Nikolaev’s school! They opened up and declared “the era of that school” and marked its guidelines – professional, aesthetic, and ethic. To reach such summits beyond the clouds was impossible, for titans are born but once in a hundred years (the 20th century was uniquely lucky to have had so many in one city, nay, in one class), but the majority of Nikolaev’s “descendants” (not all, for every family has its black sheep) were an aspiring lot, they had been growing up, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, saturating themselves with the life-giving sap of the school, satiating themselves with its wisdom, and finally developed themselves into excellent musicians, performers, and pedagogues without whom the musicianship of the 20th and early 21st centuries is inconceivable. And then they scattered, every single one of Nikolaev’s students. Totally unlike each other and yet “relatives” – S.  I. Savshinsky and N. Ye. Perelman, G. M. Buze and V. H. Razumovskaya,  P. A. Serebryakov and I. M. Renzin, M. P. Brener and A. D. Kamensky, and many, many others – created their own schools in Leningrad and other cities (and countries). Going out of their great Nikolaev Alma Mater, they masterfully shaped the contemporary style of piano playing, musical thinking, methodology, and spirit that originated in L. V. Nikolaev’s creative work. Being to the utmost degree self-reliant, original, self-sufficient, and self-worthy worlds, these Nikolaevian musicians at the same time were setting the stage, accumulating energy, and     creating the need for a new figure that would rival in its power the three “pathfinders,” the three giants, the creatures of the 1920’s; a figure that would crown the almost 100-year-long history of the Nikolaev era. It was Grigory Sokolov who turned out such a figure.


“Sokolov is a unique pianist.” “Sokolov is a perfect pianist.” “Sokolov is a pianist No.1.” (The latter statement sounds rather ambiguous, if one remembers the words of Yehudi Menuhin, who, when asked which number in the hierarchy of the world violinists he reckoned himself, said, “I am the second in the world”, and to “Who is the first then?” answered, “Well… the first ones are plenty.” Besides, what is the scale to define one’s serial number in arts?). These definitions have been stereotyped and spread around. The uniqueness and especially perfection of Sokolov’s art are not always met with unequivocal response, do not have strong attraction for all, do not appeal to all, are not equally significant for all. Some people mistake perfection for correctness or impeccability, that is to say, depersonalization (which in turn gets confused with detachment), and regard that impeccability (as seen in place of perfection) as a fault rather than a virtue and accordingly strip the real perfection of its halo of uniqueness. Indeed, impeccability aka depersonalization cannot be unique. It can only be stereotyped, even though the level of that stereotype is high beyond approach. It has been said (and written) that Sokolov “was not open to discussion in creative way,” that there allegedly was no point of discussion, or even need or interest for one, for it was boring. And yet there were discussions, nay, there were fights, especially at the beginning of his career. There were fights not only concerning the appropriateness of his winning the competition. There were arguments concerning his having or not having “inspiration,” again confusing it for half-mad eyes fixed upon the ceiling, for either arbitrariness or “divine” boredom of interpretations, for the bohemian mode of being, or for false notes. As for the latter, Sokolov indeed never plays any. Neither does he stare at the ceiling – he looks at the keyboard. He bends over it, he aims at it as is fit for an artist to aim at their instrument, as Gigels and Yudina did. But all that is but trifle. What was annoying was the correctness of his playing which was dubbed sterile. To tell the truth, we are fed up with exemplarily disciplined alumni of conservatories, especially the Moscow one. That is why people so eagerly imbibed freethinking, talented imperfection, fresh breath of the visiting musicians and that is why everybody fell in love with Cliburn and was attracted to the young Dichter. As Vladimir Sofronitsky once said, “…how well it would be if they [the contestants, primarily compatriots] had played a little incorrectly.” This is quite true as related to very many impeccable pianists who aimed at a victory. Not at creative work or perfectness but at a victory – at coming galloping the first. And victories were indeed unthinkable without impeccability. But none of that had anything to do with Sokolov, be it only due to the fact that he did not aim at winning that competition. “I very well remember that I traveled to Moscow for the competition just in order to play, to test my abilities. I never expected any sensational triumphs. Perhaps it was precisely what helped me.” We remember, too, that it was no unique case. Cliburn came to Moscow just for sight-seeing; Mogilevsky, on the eve of the final round in Brussels, played Ping-Pong and expected nothing. But this is not the most important. Sokolov was not a disciplined pupil of magnificent pedagogues, even though they certainly left indelible impressions on his character. He is a creator with a built-in longing for perfection, an ineradicable and all-absorbing need. As time went on, the debates were subduing, although from time to time the fabric of professional opinions and appraisals would suddenly be cut through with a sharp nail of infrequent but funny texts as if resuscitated from the distant era of the 60’s, the era of snobbish malevolence and preconceived deafness. “His music-making resembles that of an overachieving schoolboy who had grown into a huge tall fellow: everything is clean, everything is pretty; a forte here, a piano there… yet everything is somewhat school-like.” Or again, “... Sokolov’s music is sounding architecture: well-made buildings, beautiful, strong and built to last for centuries /which is not bad at all, is it? – A.Y./, none but symmetrical and cold to touch.” Thus wrote in 2010 a funny critic with a funny penname, Veselago (16) (Kirill Shevchenko), the author of a witty and spiteful novel about the Mariinsky Theater of the Gergiev era. In that certainly unprofessional text (just as in other ones in the same article published by the Smena magazine) the main peculiarities are concentrated of Sokolov’s art and, more broadly, of that type of musical performance whose perfect representative was, for one, A. Michelangeli. (Thus could be – and in a similar way was – written in the 19th century about H. von Bülow, referring to that giant’s playing as “apprentice-like great” – Große Schüler Spiel). This review by Veselago is an expression of neither certain partialities, sympathies, or antipathies based on personal tastes (which would only be natural, for everyone hears and perceives in their own way as conditioned by their cultural level, education, and habits of perception), nor lack of professionalism, which would also be natural when judging artistic phenomena, for everyone is entitled to analyze and categorically criticize a film, a novel, or an artist’s performance (whereas nobody in their right mind would discuss a surgical operation or the principle of the proving of the Poincaré conjecture by Grigory Perelman). It is politics and arts that everybody claims to be an expert in. The aforesaid text concentrates in it the rather typical if not widespread lack of understanding that the existence of such a person these days is still possible. Sokolov is said by K. Veselago to be “unsociable, laconic, and keeping himself to himself – now here is the enigma of a genius!” The sarcasm is understandable, for a person living in the age of Facebook and all other kinds of social network, whose infatuated user the aforesaid Smena columnist most certainly is (and not alone, either, for many a columnist in many a country when writing of Sokolov dub him “enigma” and “the living paradox of the hypermedia era”) cannot but regard Sokolov’s life style as alien and incomprehensible and therefore able to excite nothing but animosity. In the age of public and impertinent demonstrating one’s own and other people’s underwear, of taking vicious pleasure in poking into everything intimate and secret in one’s own and other people’s lives, in the age of “walls of glass,” the natural desire and instinct of a normal person to keep their inner world and their personal life to themselves and to guard their home, which is their castle, from the strangers’ insolent eyes and their rather dirty little hands, from gloating attention and merry-vagoish indifference, this, I say, normal condition of a normally cultured normal human being only excites irony and is classed as a sophisticated publicity technology. “This is an ideal myth of our time, when myth-creating is tightly fused with the technologies of manipulating mass consciousness. In modern phraseology, ‘Grigory Sokolov’ is a brand, and the genius character of this musician lies in the fact that he created it himself many years ago based on some (perhaps intuitive) knowledge.” As a matter of fact, this comical formula and the writer’s shocking style (which sometimes, but far from always, is apt and sometimes self-worthy, but as a rule has nothing to do with the object in question) would have been humdrum due to their purposelessness, had they not revealed the insurmountable break, the impassible chasm that separates the disappearing, nay, already gone Russian and more specifically Petersburg-Leningrad culture from the nature of the new generation, that of Mr. Shevchenko Veselago. The said chasm can be seen not so much in opinions concerning Grigory Sokolov’s art (opinions be confounded; Sokolov is neither hot nor cold about them and so are we his audiences) as in his description of the audiences – the kind of audiences that used to packed auditoriums  where Yudina and Sofronitsky, Richter and Gilels, Sokolov and Kissin played. According to Veselago, it was “a mob of professional (and not quite so) musicians – concert pianists and frosted conservatory pundits who had dedicated their lives to writing treatises on how the pianoforte is to be played /…/, the urban crazy and devoted female worshippers, ‘enlightened’ bureaucrats, and /…/ intelligentsia of the ‘physicists vs. lyricists’ (17) generation who go to Sokolov because ‘you cannot but go to such a concert’.” In addition, the aforesaid and so irritating to “the people of the world” unsociability, withdrawal, submergence in his own world, excessive self-sufficiency, richness and generosity and chaste protectiveness of that world are all of them qualities inherent not only in Sokolov’s being but also in his creative work. According to the musician himself, “art is neither a job nor a service but life itself, its most important part, and this is why the way one lives is the way one plays.” I would add the reverse: the way one plays is the way one lives.

So, Sokolov’s indisputability is disputable and his “indiscussability,” discussable.  Alongside the waning and already extinct dilettantish accusations of “schoolhood”    come rapturous, professionally sound, and profound acknowledgements of genius.     “Out of all living performers in all kinds of genre, Grigory Sokolov is the only one of whom I can say, ‘He is a genius’.” Thus Michel Franck, general manager of Champs Elysées Theater. Evgeny Kissin (should I class him as one of the ‘urban crazy” or a “semiprofessional musician”?) names Grigory Sokolov his favorite pianist (him the first and Martha Argerich only the second!); and on another occasion he emphatically recollects, “…/in spite of being sick/ I still made it to the first part of the recital /in Verbier/ of my not just favorite but utterly honored Grigory Sokolov.”  Leonid Gakkel, who does not suffer from sentimentality, wrote in 1996, “My eyes – why conceal it? – were clouded with tears of happiness and rapture.” And he was not alone, either; only Mr. Gakkel is a true champion of applying the highest criteria to a musician’s appraisal, the model of taste and professional exactingness. (On the other hand, even in that brilliant review Leonid Evgenyevich did not do without his favorite thesis about “the vanishing of the fabric of the art of pianoforte,” as though outside that fabric of supreme and divine perfection, the fabric whose each and every thread is a most priceless gift – as though outside that musical fabric the very existence of piano music were at all possible… Without fabric, the king is naked.) “On the summit of pianoforte Olympus one must be alone. Grigory Sokolov is not to meet any of his pianist colleagues up there. Instead, on those heights he has had personal encounters with all the immortal creators,” wrote Peter Krause (Die Welt, 2012). “It is a truly fantastical phenomenon. There is no one to rank alongside him.” “In fact, the Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov does not play for his audiences. Nor even for himself. But for the sake of music, for it alone.” The latter quotation from Le Temps of Geneva in perhaps the most precise way reflects the essence of the pianist’s creative thinking and being.

Grigory Sokolov is unique. But so is every great talent or genius, be it Gould or Sofronitsky, Rubinstein or Yudina. He is perfect. But so are Gilels and Michelangeli, Horowitz and Annie Fischer. A Paris Conservatory professor said, “I have for half my lifetime played this /Mozart/ sonata and studied it with my pupils. I comprehend in it everything – touch, articulation, modulation, and pedal, the latter in most cases simply not being there at all. The only thing is unclear for me: how does he /Sokolov/ do it?!” This very thing “how does he do it,” this unsolvable magic of his playing, this enchantment all seem to be that uniqueness of his perfection which is habitually exalted with sincere rapture and bewilderment.

With the lapse of time, I repeat, the arguments have subdued and the pianist’s place on the musical Olympus is now unshakeable, and yet something in it latently scratches many, very many even of his most benevolent, keenly hearing, and sincere admirers; something remains incomprehensible and therefore unconsciously annoying: how, but how does he do it? What clearly traumatized and scandalized Mr. Veselago and Moscow hen-like female critics but perplexes and sometimes puzzles his sincere and delighted connoisseurs, namely, the uniqueness of his perfection, to my mind lies in the fact that Sokolov’s World, his Universe is Harmony in its utmost approach to the ideal. It is harmony as a synonym of freedom, harmony as the naturalness of implanting oneself freely into the world that surrounds one in all its manifestations, and comprehending and spiritualizing it. This is precisely why Grigory Sokolov is not our contemporary, for he cannot be a contemporary of an era not only of outrageous disharmony but also of nightmarish and spiteful absurd and therefore a contemporary of ours, us having been raised by this era, the era of anti-world, of anti-universe. The more than once quoted here S. Rassadin exclaimed aggressively and angrily, “Pushkin is not our contemporary!”  when reacting to the complacent chummy manners we nonentities assume with geniuses, as we try to associate ourselves with them, to bring them down to our level, to build them into our times, to adapt them. “Shakespeare is our contemporary”, “our Tolstoy.” No, they are not ours. Even Pushkin, the only absolute embodiment of harmony in Russian culture who grew and developed at that unique moment of harmonicity of Russian conscience and life, having lived through and completed that moment and been drawing near the end of his life, was already estranging himself from then imminent time of “fear and torment” (I. Annensky), was turning “not ours” not only for D. Pisarev, who embodied the conscience and the being of the era and society, but also for Lermontov, Gogol, and Dostoevsky, the geniuses engendered by the then emerging endless period of social stagnation, by the increasing chasm, absurd, and failure. So is Sokolov. He is not ours, not our contemporary, paradoxically though it sounds. He is of another dimension, of another world, of another Universe, that of Pushkin. This is precisely why he is not fully comprehendible even by his ardent admirers, for he is a stranger, for it is impossible to comprehend harmony in this era of chaos. It is impossible to comprehend how he does it, that is to say, how he so naturally and freely implants himself into other worlds while co-articulating them with his own, inspiring (here goes not quite elegant a word again!) and giving them a meaning. And, of course, how, but how does he implement…

How does he do the old men harpsichordists or virginalists? Say, his beloved and, in his own words, “contemporary” Rameau? How does this fanciful, intricate, museum music, this trifle of the resplendent Versailles comes alive under his fingers? And then this music turns out to be a world in itself, a world of feelings, thoughts, and meanings unbeknown and dissonant to us but really seething underneath the courteous appearances of the carefree courtly age; a world which the pianist has discovered, comprehended, and brought up to us. These meanings, emotions, and events lure and absorb us with their genuine topicality and never for a moment let go of our attention, even though the Rameau’s suite carries on for as long as thirty minutes and more… Here are coquetry and passion and a tragic apparition of death and burlesque and melancholy and the poetry of lament and irony and childish naivety of a musical snuffbox. Here is life. And Sokolov saturates this life with vigor which is marked or designated nowhere in the sheet music as opposed to tempo and dynamics, which are at least approximately marked and designated. Due to this lack of marking, the vital force of the Louis era music has traditionally been emasculated, flattened, and substituted for by refined indifference or supercilious tranquility; the people wearing wigs, camisoles, and crinolines could only be delighted or elegantly pensive but never suffer, be tormented, exalt,  indulge in debauchery, rave or tragically die.  Was it conceived by Rameau or did Sokolov discover or think up what is hidden in these sounds, in these gold mines of ornamentation, in these dainty embellishments, in this          lace of passages, in this baroque refinement and naivety of intonations?  Paul de Man wrote, “Autobiography does not reflect reality but creates it.” This is quite so, and it does pertain to Grigory Sokolov’s creative work. And it is not just about his creative work being autographical, which it is indeed, for he himself said and proved that his “art is /his/ life”. He also said, “In order to play a minute-long piece one needs the experience of one’s lifetime.” Also: “The musician is engaged in his business permanently.” This is why his creative work is part of his biography, of his life, although this creative work of his does not reflect the existing reality but gives birth to another. Somebody wrote, “Sokolov has been given the power entirely to transform reality and to create his own, parallel to it.” In Rameau again, he does not recreate the composer’s universe but creates a new one – lively and dramatic. A universe that is concealed and ciphered in a seemingly faceless system of sings. A universe consonant with Rameau’s? Yes! Consonant with the gallant era? Partly yes, rather no. But unquestionably consonant with the world-view of the 21st century person, such that belongs on the same level of culture and personality scale as Sokolov’s. Moreover, this is a topical reading of the objective content of Rameau works; such rendition of 18th century music, full of life and emotions, by no means breaks stylistic laws or the manner of harpsichord music interpretation (although utterly rejects the tradition of museum authenticity). The wigs, camisoles, and crinolines are well preserved. All melismata are tuned up to an utter precision; the dynamics never break the limits of the harpsichord diapason or run above mezzo-forte, notwithstanding the unimaginable diversity of images, characters, emotions, and events as well as the abundance of gradations and micro-gradations of the sound. The breathtaking virtuosity of his finger technique, nobleness, brilliancy, and distinctness of his sound do not even need to be mentioned. (Incidentally, Sokolov is one of the few pianists who play harpsichord music on contemporary grand piano). Everything is clear except one thing: how does he do it? Sokolov is always unpredictable. He is unpredictable for us and sometimes unexpected for himself. That is where lies the enchanting and bewitching charm of music, the wealth and inexhaustibility of note text (or rather of any text as a sign system, where the meaning of a sign manifests itself only when a person contacts the sign and interprets it, and such persons are innumerable). That is precisely why phenomena of music (such as are true works of talent, that is to say, multidimensional) as well as of any other art live and develop with time; that is precisely why the Greek tragedy and the music of Bach are topical at all ages. This unpredictable and unfailing natural feature of music, the feature of being born again every single time (as well as the selection of compositions, be it the mighty variations on a theme of Diabelli or the lovely waltz by Griboedov) is not something artificially introduced, imposed, planned ahead or invented, but a natural outcome of comprehension, inherent logic, and living internal processes that cannot always be analyzed.

“There is no general rule for constructing a program,” Sokolov says.  It’s never the same twice. It could be constructed based on contrast of character, style, or key or else, to the contrary, on similarity. “There must be no dissonance between the adjacent pieces,” he opines, yet all of a sudden he assembles a program in such a way that two adjacent Bach compositions stand in “catastrophic dissonance with each other – F-major of the Italian Concerto and H-minor of the French Overture.” This dissonance “…was conceived by me on purpose. The result was a tritone, which is a disaster for Bach in the first place.” But almost at the same time, when asked how he designs and assembles his program, Sokolov said, “I really don’t know. A very long time ago I played The Goldberg Variations at the Leningrad Philharmonic Great Hall and right after that somebody backstage said to me, ‘You have played The Hammerklavier and The Goldberg Variations, it’s time for Diabelli Variation. I replied a categorical No – I am not going to play that piece. Yet three months later the sheet music was already on the stand and the next program already included Diabelli.” The same was with Schoenberg, whose works had not attracted the pianist. Yet he “once picked up a random collection of the 20th century music. I open it, turn the pages: Stravinsky, Schoenberg; I play the first two bars and suddenly realize that unless I play very much of him /Schoenberg/ I won’t be at ease. I ended up having played almost everything except the Concerto, Op. 25, and three early pieces.” Sokolov is highly and broadly educated musician (which is a rare case among performing artists). Even as a little child he was amazingly fastidious in studying anything he deemed worth studying. He is a wise musician (“… I think knowing much is a good thing, even though everybody knows that he who multiplies knowledge multiplies sorrow.” And also: “Galich is right – ‘thou shalt only fear him who says he knows how things ought to be’… – absolutely! An intelligent person who possesses certain knowledge with time inevitably comes to some other one.”). A wise man. But at the same time, a musician who possesses an amazing intuitiveness. That, incidentally, is exactly why his interpretation of Bach’s music is one of the peaks of his creative work. The philosophy of his playing is consonant with the universal creative method of the great German, who synthesized rational exactness, textual – evangelical – forethought of his music, sophisticated craftsmanship, and unquestioning adherence to the supreme laws of music-making, with the most powerful improvisational life force, freedom, and “unpredictability” of musical thinking (both in composing and performing: after all, Bach was a sublime improviser on organ and harpsichord). Sokolov’s 1983 recording of the gigantic Goldberg Variations (one hour and 28 minutes long) proved one of the greatest pinnacles of the worldwide Bachiana as regards profundity, freedom, viability, and topicality of the interpretation. As well as perfection. That recording has often been compared with the two (absolutely different) interpretations by Gould. The comparison is a naïve one. These two pinnacles are incomparable, for they are unattainable to the ordinary mortal. And separated by time periods to boot. Sokolov’s interpretation might be compared with those of his contemporaries, but so far there are no comparable figures on the musical Olympus. Just as his selection and construction of programs are unpredictable, so are his interpretations. They are non-anticipatable. It was, for example, impossible to conjecture such a Chopin as his (Sonata No. 3 and, especially, the Mazurkas). Moreover, Chopin could have been supposed not “his” composer at all. Yet it is possible that at a certain moment in life it was Chopin who became his dearest. Music is the most important part of the pianist’s life, and life has thrown its tragic shadow upon his comprehension of Chopin, namely, Sonata No. 3. There was something other-worldly and enchanting, sometimes giving one a hard time perceiving his rendering of this piece. It was a different Chopin, only vaguely familiar to us, without even a shadow of romantic excitement, refinement, exquisite elegance, and inimitable charm, but a Chopin sorrowful, stern, philosophically profound, and very serious  and therefore beautiful (in the Chekhovian sense of the word: “That only is beautiful what is serious”, says Dorn in The Seagull). It was another Chopin’s aspect. What shaped that aspect were the very principle of Sokolov’s existence in art; the specific – tragic – moment in his life; the influence of his teacher, Moisey Yakovlevich, a very tangible one: according to Pavel Gililov, Halfin “loved a stern Chopin and scarcely used rubato.” It was manifested in everything – in the observation of the phrasing that was restrained in its intonation; in a reserved agogics; in the dramatic concept of the tempos which were enchantingly rolling out but inexorably checking their step; in the layer-like dynamics which seemed to us non-characteristic of the composer; and in a most complicated pedal which created a nostalgic and pensive haze. In that rendering of Chopin one could suddenly feel seemingly unreal, yet perhaps latently existing, likeness to the Beethoven’s spirit, especially manifesting itself in the slow movements of the latter’s sonatas, be it the Largo from Sonata No. 7, which Sokolov played with  tremendous moments of revelation, openness, and painful sorrow, or, and especially, Adagio Sostenuto from Sonata No. 29 “for hammer-keyboard,” the pinnacle of Beethoven’s creative work, the pinnacle of music for pianoforte, the pinnacle of Sokolov’s art. The Adagio is the center of the monumental construction of the Sonata, one of the most romantic or rather pre-romantic, intricate, and mysterious of all his works. In his latest renderings of the Sonata (2013), the pianist was apparently imbued with its vocal nature, not so much related to song – Lieder – as to belcanto, “pre-Chopinian,” which is absolutely appropriate, for in this Adagio the composer moved from his quartet-oriented thinking manifested as it is in many of his slow movements, towards speech-like, vocal interpretation of the instrument. Chopin did not like Beethoven, yet something grew through. Something “Chopinian” was inherent in the creative work of the unsociable Viennese; suffice it to recall the slow movement of Beethoven Concerto No. 3; something was revealed by the naked nerve of the genius performer, Sokolov.

Sokolov has performed The Hammerclavier twice. I know the 1975 recording; the second one took place 38 years later. Judging by the reviews, these two are absolutely different interpretations, not only of the Sonata itself, but also of the instrument and of the composer’s thinking; two different perceptions of being. The old recording is a monolithic symphonic colossus, integral, powerful, carved within the framework of classical traditions of this piece’s interpretations. The latest version, according to competent connoisseurs, is rather a move away from that tradition, from the “assembledness,” monolithic nature, and smoothness of interpretation towards getting the feel of the great musician, who was deprived of hearing the real, physical outcome of his designs and who had lived within his own internally sounding world whose laws and conceptions were radically ahead of the musical standards of the time. That is the origin of the music being somewhat lacerated, interrupted, and intricately fragmented, of its sharpness and angularity; the pianist seems to try – quite successfully – to penetrate the creative process of composing this unique work of Beethoven’s, The Hammerclavier. Nor is it an artificially imposed idea. “All this is in the sheet music. In Beethoven,” says Sokolov, and it is the truth. Again, I’ve never heard the latest version of Sokolov’s reading of Opus 106 but readily believe the expert musicians whom I value very highly. This is not as if I created an idol for myself (this is ruled out) but because that way of regarding musical text, of scrutinizing and unceasingly reading and attentively listening to the score; that way of perceiving the graphical system as a limitless sea of senses and meanings and possibilities; this longing for comprehending the essences that are concealed but present in the music; all these together do not as much comprise Sokolov’s creative method as are the very essence of his art, which is to say, of his life. This is precisely why his interpretations of various compositions are so unpredictable. Take Mozart Sonata in G-minor (К. 310), the 2012 recording. It is not a tender romantic impulse or a gallop slow in motion, as the first movement is often played, but a sort of blowing away whirlwind of anxiety which is hidden behind the brilliant passages of pensiveness and culminations that are saturated with drama if not tragedy, especially at the end of the movement, where an arpeggio of diminished harmonies rushes down like lava. As far as the second movement is concerned, I’ve never heard anyone play with such emotion and chaste sadness. A miracle. Or take Schubert Impromptu, which are purged of the bedraggled and immature clichés; or absolutely inverted Sonata No. 3 of Schumann, whose interpretation is far from indisputable but strikes one with its boldness and novelty. (“In Robert Schumann Sonata in five movements, I was changing the order of variations as influenced by many factors. Some variations that at first were omitted I started playing at mid-season.”) Or take the calm, wise, and pensive Brahms in Intermezzo Op. 117 which Sokolov often completes his Klavierabends with, or Brahms again, but mighty, many-faceted, and carnival-like in the many-genre Variations on the Theme of Handel or in the monumental Sonata No. 3. Or take Saint-Saëns or Arapov or Scryabin or… or any music played by Grigory Sokolov.

The unique unpredictability of his interpretations is not the main sign of the inimitability of Sokolov’s creative work. After all, interpretations by Yudina, Gould and other geniuses, the chosen few, are also unexpected. What is the most amazing is the very existence of the works in his repertoire. Usually, nay, always the bringing a piece up to stage is the final point, the outcome of long and meticulous efforts on the part of a performing musician. Later on, the artist changes something or other in the rendering, but as a rule, all such modifications are a natural offspring of the very essence of a musical performance which is an act of contact of the living, changing, and ageing man with multifaceted and polyvalent text upon varying circumstances – with differing instruments, in acoustical environments that are poles apart, etc. With Sokolov, such phenomena do not happen by chance as is inherent in the specifics of performing arts but rather a thought-through system, philosophy, and essence of his practice of interpretation and of his life. The first rendering is not a result but only an intermediary, midway (if not initial) stage of this piece’s existence in his hands. A new program is for him a new world which he enters gradually, by degrees, listening to it, scrutinizing it, getting to comprehend it long before he applies his hands to the keyboard and the first real sound comes to life. By the time of the first performance the program   is up for a long journey. Not more than just that: the journey lies ahead. “The most interesting stage in working on a piece starts after the first performance. … Each performance is unique, every time everything gets changed, sometimes quite seriously so. And this process in awfully interesting.” That is precisely why he usually performs one or two programs in a season, which is amazing. The scope of his repertoire seems unlimited; his mobility, that is to say, the speed and exactness with which he gets into possession of a new text is colossal; to put it in simpler words, he formally learns a new piece of any complexity in a record short time. Nonetheless, it’s one or two programs (with insignificant modifications) a year.    Some think it an eccentricity, others – especially those of para-musical environment – a publicity stunt. It shows, beyond our contemporaries’ powers to comprehend, the nature of the true artist who lives the life of his work as if of his own child, carefully follows it in its development, affects it, and suffers when parting with it. Sokolov belongs to that extinct species, homo faber (to the widest extend of the term). “I part with a played out piece very pensively. I am not interested in playing it again and again; it is important for me to have it come through the entire journey.” What controls the development and transformation of a piece during its existence? Is it the artist’s will, external influences, or chance? Who knows! Mysterious are the ways of true creativity, fortunately. “You go for a walk in the woods and afterwards play differently. You live and change, therefore, your interpretations change too.” (It is interesting to compare these words of Sokolov with the principle that Anton Rubinstein conveyed to his pupil, the great Iosif Hofman: “When the weather is fine you may play this piece the way you just did, but when it rains you will play differently.” S. I. Savshinsky often recalled this precept. A pupil would say, “How come, S. I., the other day you played this part for me differently.” – “But the other day it was raining whereas now it is sunny!”).  Mysterious indeed are the ways of creativity, but the ways of achieving the optimal conditions for its perfect being are not. At least, it is the case with Sokolov. His exactingness in creating such conditions is legendary. And gain, it is not a calculated advertisement stunt but the artist’s own need which is indelible and possibly unconscious.


In Leningrad-Petersburg, the Great Hall would be made available to him for six hours each of three days prior to the recital for his rehearsals (although sometimes the number of hours would be cut short because of the Hall’s busy schedule). It is the time for growing accustomed with the auditorium and the grand piano. The best point in terms of acoustics for the grand on stage would be found and marked; this would take at least 30 minutes. The pianist would also adapt himself to the chair, which must be with cushions (he never uses the Steinway banquettes); the work on the grand would ensue. For his yearly Petersburg recitals (he never plays in Moscow) the best piano tuner, Evgeny Artamonov, would be summoned from the capital – and magic would commence. While playing, Sokolov would frequently stop, take counsel with the tuner, crawl under the grand with a flashlight, play again, and then give his directions to Artamonov. And so ad infinitum. In the evenings, Evgeny Artamonov would stay inside and work his magic all by himself. Thus for three days. The final rehearsal would commence an hour prior to the concert. And thus at each and every hall of Europe which Sokolov picks out himself by their acoustic properties. The piano tuners dread him, deify him, and learn from him. He knows, better than them, everything about the grand piano; he will explain why he prefers Steinways of Hamburg assemblage over American one, and what it is that attracts him in the Pratt-Read keyboard.  This knowledge, again, springs from the very nature of his talent and life principle: whatever is to be known must be known thoroughly. Besides, this trait might be inherited from his teachers: Moisey Yakovlevich Khalfin knew the instrument’s “physiology” minutely; Samary Ilyich Savshinsky had been earning his bread as a consultant at the Red October piano factory after being fired from the conservatory in the infamous 1951. Long afterwards the latter had been remembered at the factory as the best consulting expert in piano making and acceptance inspector. Sokolov knows the instrument because of his fantastic erudition but also because he loves it. “Grand piano is for me like my own child,” – these constantly quoted words of his reflect the essence of the pianist Sokolov’s being. The grand piano is his co-creator in his life’s work, which is “to play neither for himself nor for the public but for the sake of music.” And grand piano returns his love with usury. This is precisely why so striking are contrasts within one recital or even one part thereof, when the pianist seems to be playing on different instruments or even that playing are different pianists, if it were possible to imagine the very existence of several musicians of such an above-the-clouds level. Even the seasoned connoisseurs got thunderstruck, for example, with a transformation of both the pianist and the piano during the same part of 2010 recital, where Bach Partita No.2 in C-minor was played – that glaring flow, full of energy, charged with variety of emotions, clear, integral (there were no pauses between the numbers, which created a full illusion of authenticity, although Sokolov shuns authenticity  as playing on instruments and in the manner of the time the piece was composed), with the self-worthy pearly sound, precise rhythms, willpower, and transparency; and right after the Partita, Brahms Seven Fantasias of Op. 116: a different world, loftily agitated, with a delicate rubato, contrasting dynamics, and free agogics; and a different instrument – singing (Sokolov’s belcanto on the piano is legendary), colorful, and orchestra-like many-faceted.

How does he create, like Woland of M. Bulgakiv’s Master and Margarita, this unreal aura of his recitals, where even the great skeptic L. I. Gakkel sheds “tears of happiness and rapture”; when “…you cease to understand where you are or what is happening to you… It’s music alone that you are with… you are hypnotized by it… it takes you to another era,” as Petersburg critic Yakov Kovalensky wrote in his sincere stupefaction about a spell you fall under – how does he?!   Of course, it is God-given. It’s one of those rarest cases when no other explanation is possible.  His gift is God-given. His teachers are God-given.

Sokolov joined the class of L. I. Zelikhman at a pre-school age; he was introduced there by Anna Yakovlevna Gelfand, under whom the boy had studied for a year and who, realizing how unusual her pupil’s talent was, took him to the Conservatory Desyatiletka. Under Lia Ilyinichna’s guidance he had been growing for 11 years and finally became the Sokolov the world of music knows (and argues about). Starting in 1964, he had simultaneously studied under M. Ya. Khalfin, graduated from the Conservatory and, in 1975, completed the postgraduate course.  All things had come happily together, including even the fact that his schoolteacher, who brought him up to the winning the Tchaikovsky Competition, and his Conservatory professor were a family. Not just figuratively as members of the same profession but quite literally, as testified by their marriage certificate.  Thus it came to pass that he had all that time lived in the same creative, ethical, and cordial atmosphere, experiencing no breakups, perturbations or changing authorities or    guidelines.

It was a wonderfully integral atmosphere, and it could not but result in the integrity of his character and his creative work. Such an atmosphere is no more and is never to be again. Leningrad. The 60’s and 70’s. Khalfin. Love. This is not a slip of the tongue or sentimental value or nostalgic aberration. It was indeed an atmosphere of love. Love for each other. Lia Ilyinichna was a rear beauty dubbed “the black pearl” of the class of Savshinsky (Samary Ilyich had two “pearls” of beauty in his class –Sophia Vakman, a world-class accompanying pianist, and Lia Zelikhman). Moisey Yakovlevich was a fascinating man of a Hollywood-type charm, whose looks were, among other things, lit by his outstanding talent of an artist and musician (Savshinsky called him “the best of my former pupils”). The relationship of Moisey Yakovlevich and Lia Ilyinichna was really saturated with amazing, old-fashionably romantic love, which later on was also showered on their daughter Kira. They also cherished sincere and reciprocal love of their teacher. Lia Ilyinichna called Savshinsky her second father, which was not far from the truth, for she came from the city of Rostov and joined his class at the age of 13. One of Khalfin’s pupils, Nadezhda Eismond, remembered, “Moisey Yakovlevich …, his most respectable status notwithstanding, would always arise from his seat when S. I. Savshinsky entered the classroom. Savshinsky was our ‘grandfather’.” “The happiest moments for M. Ya. were those when his teacher, S. I. Savshinsky, dropped in. M. Ya. would jump up from the sofa and rush towards him as soon as his shaven (bald! - A. Y.) head appeared in the door aperture,” wrote L. Spivak. It was their teacher that they later sent Kira to. They all were family. Love they bore their pupils was akin to love for one’s children and grandchildren; it was true love that was never contingent on the level of student’s talent (or, if it sometimes was – why be secretive about it? – nonetheless carefully smoothed away outwardly); the everlasting love for one’s pupil, albeit a former one but still a beloved musical child.  It was all-absorbing love of their work, love that was utterly exacting, even stern (if the notions of love and sternness are compatible) – but perhaps in art it is sternness that is the highest degree of genuine love of art and profession. It was love and passion for perfection, freedom, and discipline of creative work, which things are also quite compatible, and also in arts. It was love for the instrument, for knowing and feeling it; it was love for music as the purpose of life. Love and the highest professionalism had dictated the specific features of interrelations between Sokolov and his teachers. When the young man came to study under Khalfin he already was a mature musician. As a matter of fact, the level of upper grade students of the Desiatiletka could, as a rule, be objects of envy for alumni of many a conservatory. Especially as far as such outstanding musicians are concerned as Sokolov or Khirshhorn, Ugorsky or Pergamenshchikov, Berson or Zagursky, Gililov or Gantvarg. Although I never attended Khalfin’s lessons with Sokolov, but don’t doubt – nay, I know – they were not “lessons of delight”, such as had been Nikolaev's ones with Sofronitsky (these, I remember, were lessons of "concealed delight” which manifested itself in a satisfied snuffle from the remotest corner of the classroom). Nor were they stereotyped classes of a pupil under a maestro, such as meticulous study and comprehension of the musical text, careful technical work, adjusting dynamics and agogics, etc.; in all these things Moisey Yakovlevich was a virtuoso, second to none at the Conservatory; his exhausting but joyful fastidiousness was greater even than his former teacher’s (this I got to know; he was a tough professional). Sokolov needed none of that: as far as text was concerned, he had it at his fingers’ ends, was unshakably principled in it, and allowed no encroachment on its inviolability, at times even entering a contest with his teacher; as far as technique was concerned, his was such that boggled one’s mind even during his school years; his might as an interpreter was obvious even to his ill-wishers. So those lessons were rather conversations between the two musicians where one shared his professional, creative, and ever worldly experience with the other and where contests were possible and necessary (Khalfin encouraged expressing and defending their own opinions by any pupil, not just by such an outstanding one). Directions were more often than not insignificant and incidental but always to the point, not so much directions as advice. “You have a whole stock of virtuosity, so let all of it out at an appropriate moment, make a brilliant display.” Sergei Maltsev remembered how Khalfin, when working with Grisha on Prokofiev Sonata No. 8, gigantic and most difficult, and being quite satisfied with its performance, advised or rather asked him to play the pedal drier: “… just do it for my sake.” Khalfin was a wise pedagogue.

Savshinsky had a sure criterion of a pedagogue’s true success. The best pedagogue is not one who has most speedily “unfolded or opened up” the pupil or who has most fully equipped them with the necessary store but one who has most speedily made oneself, the pedagogue, useless for them. Lia Ilyinichna made herself useless for Sokolov rather early. This professional “uselessness” did not, however, made obsolete their mutual need for further, life-long communication – creative, intellectual, and emotional, for, let me repeat, it was an amazing and rather rare case of perfect concurrence between the outstanding individualities of the student and his teachers.

In his memoires Grigory Sokolov points out (a bull-eye, as always) the unfair treatment of children’s pedagogues (with the exception of Stolyarsky and Reingbald). Open any article about G. L. Sokolov and at best you will find there a bare mention of L. I. Zelikhman (and sometimes hardly two words more of M. Ya. Khalfin – they were Leningraders after all). Yet it is dealing with children, especially gifted ones, that is a most difficult, important, and risky job. Entering conservatory, a student is already the mature individual (or immature, and then it’s for life). The schoolchild, on the other hand, is a daily (no exaggeration here) changing world; a unique, fragile, unknown, incessantly explosive flower. The changes are catastrophic and instant, at times noticeable, at others, latent. To miss any instance of such transformations – physiological, spiritual, ideological (any first-grader has a world-view, abstruse and foreign though it is to grown-ups, yet unquestionably existing) is to ruin the pupil, turn them away from the profession, and mutilate their apparatus, their psyche, and their life. The children’s pedagogue in particular is supposed to possess the unique synthesis of strong professional and methodical convictions (though not clichés) and incessant improvisational flexibility, adaptability to each unique student at every unique instance of their development; to possess an ideal pedagogical sensitivity and to be the outstanding (not necessarily concert) performer, for one can only teach what one knows how to do oneself (Khalfin had been a magnificent concert pianist up till the age of 52 and afterwards an unsurpassed ensemble musician; suffice it to recall that at the first All-Union Competition won by Gilels, Khalfin was the second. Zelikhman too played magnificently and would’ve become a concert pianist had it not been for stage scare – a rather common “disease” among performers; Savshinsky himself quit stage in the mid-1920’s because of it). The children’s pedagogue is supposed to love the pupil, not just for show but as their own child (for such it actually is – a child born in its first teacher’s aura) but also love music as devotedly, that is to say, to fight mercilessly against any violation of the law of that wonderfully tuned up world; mercilessly, yes, but in such a way that the pupil should perceive that fight with joy and wonder. The children’s pedagogue is supposed to know the little human being’s system – the hands, the psycho-physiological setup – oh how many ruined pairs of hands our craft has known!  Lord, how gloriously it all succeeds! If only it does. The class of Zelikhman was regarded as the best of the Desiatiletka while she herself, the best pedagogue. But then again, who did the rating and with what tool? To be sure, she was one of the most reputable leaders at the Desiatiletka at the time when it was glaring with a constellation of the most excellent piano pedagogues – M. V. Wolf, M. I. Mekler, A. Ya. Zhukovskaya, T. B. Rumshevich, R. R. Slonim, et al. Sophomores and seniors of Lia Ilyinichna’s classes surpassed in their skills higher school students, but with the little ones she also worked wonders. Only very few in the whole USSR could match her. I have no doubt that Sokolov’s hands, the sound of the grand piano – always thoroughly listened to and heard through by him, diverse, and flexible; zealous devotion to text, clarity of comprehension and awareness of textural stratification; pianistic articulation; and unique freedom of performance are all of them legacy of Zelikhman. She built their foundation.


…Even the first astronauts had not enjoyed such enthusiasm. Thousands of rapturous citizens took to the main street of the great city; a splendid motorcade slowly moved ahead under a rain of flowers and confetti and colored scrap paper; President Eisenhower had set aside all urgent matters to personally great the charming musician and gentleman, the First Tchaikovsky Competition winner, Van Cliburn.

Early in the morning, Grisha Sokolov alighted from a Moscow train, accompanied by his dad and Lia Ilyinichna, a humble nosegay in hand.  Meeting him were just a few, friends and family. No crowds on Nevsky Prospect, as opposed to Broadway, no motorcades. No Comrade Brezhnev broke his busy schedule in order to give the sensational victor a hug. The day he won was not designated The Music Day, not even in Leningrad, as in the USA was the day of Cliburn’s triumph. It’s worth stating, though, that with the advent of Sokolov music changed as it always does with an advent of a genius. After a brief rest, back to school, to work, to studies. The boy had journeyed to Moscow, won, and come back again. And kept playing with perfection. For he could not possibly do or be otherwise. He did not become great. He had already been so. He could not but be the great musician, the great personality. And thus – forever, for he is Grisha Sokolov.

Boston, 2014 – 2019.


Translated from the Russian by Alexander Dorman

(1) An allusion to President Putin’s hang glider flight with white cranes, 2012
(2) The special musical school attached to Legingrad Conservatory.
(3) Mikhail Ivanovich Kalinin, Chairman of USSR Supreme Soviet, speaker of the Soviet “parliament.” 
(4) An allusion to Dostoevsky’s remark, “We all have come out of Gogol’s Overcoat.
(5) A reference to Stalin’s famous moustache.
(6) Stalin’s mummy was laid in the Mausoleum alongside Lenin’s.
(7) The day of Stalin’s death in 1953.
(8) Thus Leningrad-Petersburg was and still is often referred to.
(9) Lavrenty Beria was chief of the Soviet security police at different times called Cheka, NKVD, MVD, and KGB.
(10) Georgy Malenkov took the position of Prime Minister on the day of Stalin’s death.
(11) Soviet propaganda had praised Stalin as the sublime expert in all possible fields of human activities.
(12) Legend has it that a gun salvo of the cruiser Aurora was the sign to start what turned into the October Revolution.
(13) Author Constantine Paustovsky in a private conversation (later made know to the public) referred to Stalin in (hardly translatable) terms pertaining to criminal underworld. 
(14) At the 20th Congress of the Communist party, Khrushchev delivered the historical report on the personality cult of Stalin and thus gave a start to what was later dubbed the thaw. 
(15) Short before his death, Stalin allegedly was making ready for deporting the Jews to Siberia. 
(16) A combination of “vesely”,  the Russian for ‘merry’, with the ending as in Zhivago.
(17) An allusion at widespread in the Soviet mass media of 1960’s discussions of whether “physicists” (people of sciences) or “lyricists” (people of arts) are the more important. 


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