La Scena Musicale - Vol. 4, No. 6 Mars / March 1999
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Piano - à la Russe
by Philip Anson

Quebec will be visited by some of the world’s most talented - and eccentric - pianists in March, including Anton Kuerti, Ivo Pogorelich, and the Russians Constantin Lifschitz, and Grigory Sokolov.

Pianophiles are particularly excited about the return of the 48-year old Sokolov. As a youngster, Sokolov intended to become a conductor, then switched to piano. "When I was four I had my own little podium, a baton, and records and I used to 'conduct'," he told one interviewer. He started piano studies at 5, and at 16 he won the Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition’s first prize and Gold Medal. His mentor at that time was Soviet pianist Emil Gilels, and his idols included Scriabin’s son-in-law Sofronitsky, Sergei Rachmaninov, Glenn Gould, Solomon, Dinu Lipatti, and Vladimir Horowitz. Despite many LP recordings on the Russian Melodiya label and a busy touring schedule, Sokolov remained a largely Soviet secret until the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Now at the height of his powers, he is finally winning long-overdue North American recognition. In the best Russian tradition, Sokolov’s breathtakingly flexible and powerful technique serve a frighteningly profound soulfullness.

Sokolov’s highly personal interpretations reveal an original thinker, who is also a perfectionist. Sokolov disapproves of music lovers who go to concerts merely to relax. "A concert should be strong, hard, psychological work for both the performer and the audience," he asserts.

Before he plays a note, Sokolov must satisfy himself that the piano is up to his high standards. Needless to say, a tuner is always at hand, but sometimes that isn’t enough, and he has been known to demand a better instrument at the last minute. His Montreal recital last March was an astounding triumph but Sokolov was unhappy with McGill University’s new Steinway. For his return to the same hall on March 21, the Ladies Morning Musical Club is searching for a better instrument.

Sokolov isn’t enamoured of conductors as a species, whom he usually finds uncooperative (his dispute with Charles Dutoit a few years ago means he won’t be playing with the Montreal Symphony any time soon). Not surprisingly, Sokolov’s concerto repertoire is minimal (a few of Beethoven’s, only one Prokofiev, no Schumann or Grieg). His solo repertoire is wider, reflecting his preference for recitals (most of Sokolov's recent recordings on the Opus 111 label are live recitals).

Sokolov specializes in the romantics - Brahms, Chopin, and Beethoven - whom he considers to be his contemporaries. "Contemporary music is music that's alive now. Byrd and Bach are contemporary, but something written yesterday could be dead today."