Every piano concert I go to is a rite of mourning. Each one reminds me that I will never hear Glenn Gould, the greatest of Canadian pianists, play a concert. When he died of a stroke at age 50 in 1982, I was only nine years old. Of course, Gould hadn't given a live performance since 1964, which was nine years before I was born, so I would never have heard him in any case. Live performance, Gould believed, leads to a "tremendous conservatism," a fear of risk-taking, a tendency to play exactly the same pieces over and over again in exactly the same ways. Gould abhorred conservatism, and so he left the stage to pursue his career exclusively from the recording studio.
I could understand why Gould left the stage. But why did he have to die so young? Why could he not be alive today, a spry 63? Why could he not be still releasing his marvellous, eccentric recordings of Bach and Beethoven?
These were the questions that went through my mind as I waited for Grigori Sokolov to take the stage last Sunday night at the Playhouse. I speculated idly on how much I would pay to see Glenn Gould, assuming he were alive and still giving concerts. two hundred dollars? five hundred dollars? Would I give up five years of my life if it meant Gould could have another 20? How about two years of my life?
All speculations were put aside as Sokolov, stern and upright in a black tuxedo, entered from backstage. The audience applauded and he sat down to play.
Sokolov began his program with selections from one of Gould's favourite works: Johann Sebastian Bach's Well- Tempered Clavier. Listening to Sokolov play, I couldn't believe that I wasn't listening to Gould. This almost magical feeling of reincarnation lasted all the way through the first Prelude, as each note, in its volume, its length, and its relation to other notes, seemed chosen exactly as Gould might have chosen it. The clarity of the voices, the serene spirit, the way Sokolov maintained an unbelievable tension in the lines through accent and touch rather than through volume--all of these seemed so reminiscent of Gould.
This feeling did not last through all seven Preludes and Fugues that Sokolov played (he played Preludes and Fugues nos. 9 to 16 from Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier). Sokolov modulated his performance between a Gouldian reserve and the Russian fire which is his trademark style. Sokolov gave a particularly fiery treatment to Fugues nos. 11 and 12, where he allowed his tone to swell with the phrases and brought out each voice with passionate intensity. On the last Prelude, no. 16, Sokolov regained the Gould spirit of northernness and reserved emotion, even down to moving his eyebrows expressively at key moments in the piece (watch Gould on video and you'll see what I mean).
Next on the program were four Nocturnes by Chopin, who was Gould's least favourite composer. Gould abhorred Chopin for his "empty theatrical gestures," his "exhibitionism," and his "worldly, hedonistic quality." I find it hard to write enthusiastically about Sokolov's performance, for I share Gould's bias against Chopin. But Sokolov himself is not to be blamed. His trills were phenomenally limpid and even. The voicing in his soft tones was superb.
Sokolov closed his program with three movements from Stravinsky's Petrouchka. Sokolov's gifts seemed naturally suited for this work-sudden, giocoso switches of tempo and mood, mercurial wit, bursts of fire requiring great strength and rhythmic vitality. This was the first virtuosic piece of the evening, and the audience responded with a well- deserved standing ovation.
For his encore, Sokolov played Chopin's Prelude in C Minor and, in 13 bars, all my antipathy to Chopin bled away. In its serenity, power, and simplicity, this short prelude could have been lifted from one of Bach's French Suites, or from one of Beethoven's sets of Variations. Sokolov played the piece with great gravity and solemnity, then followed it up with two more encores, Schubert's fifth Moment Musical and Chopin's Nocturne in B Major.
With this final nocturne, Sokolov opened himself up to the audience in a new way. Sokolov seemed to be feeding off the energetic audience response to his rendition of Petrouchka. His rendition of the Nocturne in B Major was a freer performance than any he had allowed himself all evening. It made a satisfying end to a superb recital.