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March 9, 1996

Music review: Bravura Russian pianist has Tchaikovsky and DSO at his fingertips

By Lawrence B. Johnson / Special to The Detroit News
When an excess of familiarity turns great music into a cliche, it's easy to lose sight of what made the work so distinctive and compelling in the first place.

Take Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, which Grigory Sokolov played with the Detroit Symphony Friday morning at Orchestra Hall. The mere mention of Tchaikovsky's warhorse can draw yawns from savvy listeners. Been there, heard that -- a zillion times.

Well, you probably haven't heard it this way. What Sokolov fashioned through imagination and daring, in bravura strokes and fine filigree was no yawner, but a wake-up call -- cold water in the face of routine.

This was, by a wide margin, the most original, technically dazzling and altogether electrifying performance of the Tchaikovsky B-flat Minor Piano Concerto I've experienced in my 27 seasons on the aisle.

The spinner of this magic is a somewhat enigmatic figure, at least to American audiences. Sokolov won the third Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in 1966, eight years after Van Cliburn won the inaugural event. Like many other winners of big competitions, Sokolov did not see that gold medal turn into instant worldwide fame.

But you can chalk that commonality up to breaks or politics or personality or whatever -- because unlike the majority of pianistic whizkids, this now-graying Russian has proved to be the real thing. He approaches the piano with disarming authority, and with every resource at his command: strength, speed, touch, insight, boldness. One moment he is a Lisztian lion, the next moment a poet of Chopin's own stripe.

The DSO, rather cautiously shepherded along by conductor Neeme Jarvi, needed all its strength to match Sokolov's solitary sound. He struck flint and unleashed lightning. He flew through the most complex passage work as if he were playing scales -- and in those flights shed light on details of the score typically lost in the technical morass.

To that speed and that clarity, Sokolov brought stunning textural control, with the ring of steel or the whisper of velvet.

It really didn't matter that the DSO woodwinds and trumpets stumbled through their assignments, or that Jarvi gave little shape to the accompaniment in general. This was a pianistic event, and Sokolov swept all before him.

For the rest of its all-Tchaikovsky program, the DSO showed better form, whipping up brilliance and energy for an early tone poem called The Storm and putting just the right touches of charm and humor on Orchestral Suite No. 1.

Music Review

Detroit Symphony Orchestra

Neeme Jarvi, conductor; Grigory Sokolov, piano; All-Tchaikovsky program. Friday morning, repeated 8:30 tonight. Tickets: from $38 to $15. Call (313) 833-3700

Copyright 1996, The Detroit News

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