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Interview with Grigory Sokolov


Utrecht, 18 February 2003
By Willem Boone


There is no bigger difference when facing master pianist Grigory Sokolov on stage just before the beginning of a concert to meeting him afterwards. Sokolov doesn’t lose any time when appearing on stage, he takes his bows and seems already totally absorbed by the music, one wonders if he notices the audience… The atmosphere in the hall is reminiscent of the concerts of the legendary Sviatoslav Richter, with only a small light on the piano, which made it difficult to see the facial expression and hands of the pianist. Backstage, Sokolov is just the kindest person, who takes his time and responds in a very intelligent and disarming way to the questions…
Willem Boone had an exclusive interview for with the Russian master pianist after his recital on 18 February 2003 in Utrecht.

WB (Willem Boone): You have great affinity to music that has been originally composed for harpsichord, e.g. Byrd, Couperin and Rameau. How did you discover this music?

GS (Grigory Sokolov): You can’t really say I “discovered” Byrd, Couperin and Rameau. They are great composers, their music will always be modern and live forever. You don’t need to discover them. They are frequently performed, although not very often on the piano. These are great names.

WB: You play the trills and ornaments in this music so fantastically, have you played the harpsichord or do you have one at home?

GS: No, not at all. It is a totally different instrument. As with the piano, you need to commit your entire life to it. Every composer has his own sound world and this atmosphere is independent of the instrument.

WB: Is it difficult to find the printed scores in Russia?

GS: For Rameau, the complete edition has been published for some years. For Couperin, there is also a complete edition in four tomes from Budapest. I don’t know if it is difficult to find them nowadays, but there are (public) libraries of course.

WB: Do you have other plans to play more harpsichord music, eg Scarlatti?

GS: I never know what will come next. I don’t have any idea what my next recital programme will look like.

WB: You give many recitals and play sometimes with orchestra. What about chamber music? Do you like to play any?

GS: No, I don’t.

WB: Are there no partners with whom you’d like to play?

GS: That’s the problem. There is so much music that has been written for the piano, we pianists can only play a very small part of it. Chamber music is of course wonderful, but you need to find a partner with whom you really have something in common. You need so much time the find the right partner! Then you need to practice in order to find out whether you are on the same wave length. When two musicians get together and are ready perform after two rehearsals, you are speaking of a compromise, rather than a common interpretation. Of course, there have been examples of wonderful musicians who spent most of their lives playing together. Since there are so many beautiful things written for piano solo, I prefer to play myself instead of searching for the right partner!

WB: Is that also the reason you play relatively seldom with orchestras?

GS: No, that is an entirely other matter, because orchestral music has been composed in a different way. When you play with an orchestra, the piano has the leading part, whereas the other musicians accompany. In chamber music, nobody has the lead, both or all partners are equal.

WB: Doesn’t playing concertos with an orchestra require a certain partnership with the conductor?

GS: Not to the same extent as playing chamber music. Normally, you will have two rehearsals and then the concert will take place. It’s good when a conductor has his own interpretation, conductors play everything . But even if he has different ideas, he has to follow his soloist. It is another way of playing together.

WB: Are there conductors with whom you particularly enjoy performing?

GS: I’ll mention a few names with whom I worked recently: some of them accompany really well. That is a gift. A very good conductor is Moshe Azmon, as well as Alexander Lazarjev, Fedor Glutschschenko, Trevor Pinnock..

WB: Trevor Pinnock is interesting, doesn’t he mainly concentrate on playing on period instruments?

GS: O yes, he plays the harpsichord, but he conducts everything, we played both the Chopin concertos in Ottawa, Brahms…

WB: Gergiev should be sensational too.

GS: We haven’t worked together very often.

WB: People in Western Europe tend to speak of “the Russian piano school”. Is there actually such thing as a “piano school”in your country or are there probably several?

GS: I don’t think so. What counts in art, is the fact whether things or people are unique. Let’s take for instance Glenn Gould. Does he belong to a school and if so, to which one? The Canadian school? Glenn Gould is simply Glenn Gould, as Emil Gilels is simply Emil Gilels. That should say it all. Sofronitzky, who also lived in Russia, was again a totally different pianist. Both he and Gilels were geniuses, if not at all comparable. You simply can’t take them together and say: “That is the Russian piano school”.

WB: Does that mean that the so-called ‘school” of Neuhaus hasn’t really existed?

GS: Not really, no. Both Richter and Gilels studied with him and developed into very different personalities.

WB: Speaking of Richter, your playing sometimes remind me of your great colleague. I sometimes had the impression of listening to four pianists, because he always seemed to find the right sound. How do you manage to always find the right sound for the right composer? Is that an intuitive process or does it happen automatically when you play?

GS: Intuition is probably situated on a higher level, if you look at the way your brain works. There is no clear distinction between the intentional and the intuitive. I think there is basically no problem. As I said before, every composer has his own sound world, everything varies; colours, articulation, dynamics, all means of expression change from one composer to another.

WB: Isn’t it difficult though to switch from one sound world to another? Tonight, you played Beethoven sonatas and then you played as one of your encores the virtuosic Toccata from Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin. Isn’t that quite a change?

GS: No, it’s not that difficult, since there are often at least two or three composers on a recital programme.

WB: Would there be a distinct Sokolov sound and would you be able to recognize yourself on the radio?

GS: I probably wouldn’t, since I never listen to my recordings. However you often hear a true personality and provided you know these personalities well, you could say: “This sounds like ….”. I think here of Gilels, Sofronitzky, Gould and Schnabel.

WB: What do you think of recording CD’s?

GS: I only record live, not in studios.

WB: Do you dislike recording in a studio?

GS: Yes, I do. It is such a different atmosphere!

WB: Will there be more live recordings of yours? Those which have been published by Opus 111 are fantastic!

GS: I am being constantly recorded. Every programme has been taped at least twice or three times. All the tapes are now in Paris with Opus 111.

WB: When will these be released?? I can tell you that I have friends all over the world, most of whom worship you and can only think of “more, more, more!”

GS: Diffiult to say, it is my fault. I should go to Paris, listen to the tapes and approve them.

WB: What do you think of the current crisis in the music industry?

GS: That is a normal situation. In the beginning, the discovery of CD’s was very interesting, because it enabled people to hear the music once again after a concert. Normally, once the concert is over, everything has died, except for the memory. Thanks to the CD, it was possible to bring back the memory of the concert, which was great. The interesting thing with old recordings is that they may not sound perfect, but they do have a lot of atmosphere, whereas the process of editing has gradually become more and more artificial. It now happens that one take was taken out and replaced by a few other measures. Furthermore, CD’s have a sterile sound, you hear nothing; no noise, no atmosphere, there is no life, just a clean sound. It is striking that a great musician used to be better live than on records, now it is the other way around; you now get a sterile CD and hear something different live. And why would one need sterile CD’s without personality? With the current CD industry, you can record all the music there is, but once this has been done, it is over.

WB: If you select a grand piano, what are your criteria?

GS: Difficult to say, there are roughly more “levels”; the grand piano should be basically ok, which rarely happens. Every instrument has its own problems, as with elderly people. A piano has never been 100% tuned. You first need to solve the most important problems. After the first selection, you mostly keep two or three instruments that are relatively good. I expect a grand piano to respond equally well to, say, Byrd or Stravinsky. Sometimes, technicians make mistakes and ask me “Would you like a mellow or a brilliant instrument?”, which sounds as if I were asked” “Without legs or without arms?”. I need both of course!

WB: How did you like the grand piano tonight (in the main hall of Muziekcentrum Vredenburg in Utrecht)?

GS: Not bad. It is an 11 year old instrument I believe. You should be able to determine whether it is a good or a bad instrument when it is more than five years old. It also depends to a large extent on the hall in which you play. Some pianos sound good in the hall of Vredenburg, others don’t. These two factors are very closely linked for me.

WB: Is there much difference between the acoustics of this hall and those of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, where you played the same programme two days ago?

GS: I don’t think so. I don’t know how many people there were tonight, since it was dark in the hall (reply of WB: not enough!). It’s difficult to say when the hall is not full, but both halls tend to be over-acoustic.

WB: What do you think of a critic who said: “Sokolov makes love to the piano”?

GS: You always have to ask yourself what people mean by this. Anyway, the piano is an instrument with unlimited possibilities.

WB: You will play Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major K 488 soon. Is this the first time you will play a Mozart concerto?

GS: Oh no, I have played this concerto before and will now perform it in Berlin. I also played several other Mozart concertos, among which the C minor and the C major concertos.

WB: What do you think of the Dutch audience? Do you believe there are several audiences?

GS: audiences are difficult to compare. Even if you are playing two consecutive nights in the same city, the audience will be totally different every time. It is a very complex conglomeration of several “layers” of education. There are first people who are really well educated, they respond very well to music and “make” the atmosphere, second there are those who may have been less well educated, but who dearly love music and third there are people who happen to be there. It is always a mixture.

WB: Is that the same in all countries?

GS: Yes, more or less. Generally speaking, you probably find more educated audiences in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. For Russia, I have to stress that St Petersburg is a big city with a very good audience. By the way, you will find there a very beautiful venue, the main hall of the Philharmonie, one of the best, if not the best of the world. I also like the small(er) hall, when it is full, it is even better than the main hall.
They are quite famous and have very good acoustics.

WB: Do you live in St Petersburg?

GS: Yes, I do.

WB: Are you happy to go home?

GS: Yes, I am.

© Willem Boone, 2003


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