The greatest living pianist


26 MARCH 2011

Why, despite his devoted fans, Grigory
Sokolov won’t play live in Britain

Grigory Sokolov is a pianist in his fifties; he is overweight, Russian, sleeps only three or four hours a night, is a strict vegan and is obsessed with the occult. He can calculate with one glance the number of seats in an empty concert hall and remembers instantly, to within an inch, where a piano used to be on a stage he hasn’t played on for years.

Sokolov is also the reason we must overhaul, right now, the ridiculous visa system that prevents so many foreign artists from performing in the UK. Lord Clancarty started a debate on the matter in the Lords this week, and cited Sokolov as a reason.

Clancarty was right. Grisha Sokolov is the greatest living pianist in the world — that’s a bold claim, I know, but he manages to do things with a piano that should be categorised under ‘not humanly possible’. In a career spanning over 35 years (he won the Tchaikovsky Competition, the greatest accolade an aspiring pianist can achieve, at the unheard of age of 16) he has released only six or seven recordings — all live, and not ‘live’ as in ‘I’ve cobbled together the best bits of a series of concerts and rehearsals’, but the real deal: one take, one concert, one huge gamble.

He won’t play with orchestras (not enough rehearsal time), won’t play on a piano that is more than five years old (the sound is too important), demands the absolute strictest piano regulation (using Nasa-level technicians who are not allowed to touch his piano stool) and requires at least twice as much rehearsal time as any other pianist (to include several hours with the technician/tuner). He will not release CDs (it would take him away from the piano for too long in order to listen to the recordings for approval) and hardly, if ever, gives interviews. None of this is about his ego; it is in pursuit of his idea of perfect music-making — piano-playing as an all-consuming quest for perfection.

And yet he is adored by thousands, tours constantly to sold-out halls, has a cult following and is completely, utterly, irrevocably my hero. His repertoire spans hundreds of years — from Byrd to Stravinsky— and no two performances are ever the same. There is always a spur-of-the-moment, intense aliveness to his playing that seems sadly lacking in so many pianists.

It would be incredible to listen to him play in London, but Grisha Sokolov won’t play in the UK any more because of our ludicrous visa requirements for artists. And whereas in the past his manager, Franco, could go and get his visa for him, now Grisha himself has to go to the consulate and obtain one in person, giving fingerprints and eye scans.

This he refuses to do. He is of the opinion that for over 20 years he was welcomed into the country and not seen as any kind of security threat, so why should he now have to submit to such checks? To take half a day away from the piano to be prodded and catalogued by immigration officials would be unthinkable for him. Yes he’s eccentric, but it’s not his loss — it’s ours.

And we really are losing out. In the absence of live performances, I’m unbelievable lucky to have accrued about 70 hours of Sokolov bootlegs over the years. The highlights include a Tokyo performance of Stravinsky’s Petrouschka (perhaps the most difficult piano composition ever written), a Chopin 1st piano concerto with Andrew Litton (Sokolov had a fever of 101 on the evening and almost cancelled — thank God he didn’t), four different performances of Rachmaninov’s 3rd piano concerto that simply defy belief (the finest of the four being from the Proms), and a performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations that is the only modern performance I’ve heard that’s on a par with Glenn Gould’s benchmark recordings. Pianophiles are an odd bunch, and collect many hundreds of hours of bootleg recordings. The amount of material available through internet forums and anonymous email addresses is extraordinary. I once made the rather rash announcement on a google groups page devoted to Sokolov that I would be happy to share my secret stash. I sent more than 300 CDs all around the world at my own expense in the following fortnight. A labour of true love.

I’ve met Grisha Sokolov a few times. My first introduction to him was when I’d bullied, bribed and flirted my way into London’s Steinway showroom and persuaded them to stay open until 11 p.m. so that he could practise on one of their pianos the night before a London concert. I picked him up from his hotel and drove him to Steinway, waited for him to finish practising, and then returned him safe and sound to his hotel.

On the day he was to arrive I decided to leave a few welcome gifts in his hotel room — wine, chocolate, a Russian edition of The Master and Margarita, a computer chess game, some Gilels CDs (Sokolov’s teacher was the great Emil Gilels) and a bunch of other things. When I came to pick him up, feeling like a spotty schoolboy who has somehow, miraculously, scored a date with Jessica Alba, he clasped me in his arms laughing that his room had been ‘turned into a department store!’ He was so touched that a fan would leave him a few presents — it seemed to be anathema to him.

On a later visit, I picked him and Franco up at Heathrow to drive them into town. Before we’d even said hello, Grisha pulled out a present for me like an excited child — a beautiful Swarowski miniature grand piano and stool. ‘It has a tiny little stool’, he kept saying to me, with obvious delight. ‘A little stool!’

On the ride into town he asked if I had any recordings of my playing we could listen to. Imagine how a kid would feel if Ronaldo asked him to kick a ball around with him. I put on a disc of a recent live recording of some Bach, Beethoven and Chopin’s 3rd sonata. And he sat in total silence, listening with an effort I’d never thought possible right through until the end. As he got out of the car he said to me, ‘You clearly have something to say. Make sure you practise correctly so you can have the freedom to say it in the way you want to.’ It’s the best advice I’ve ever been given.

A few weeks ago I flew to Lisbon to see him play. The Lisbon concert, sold out to the point where an extra 40 seats had to be placed on the stage, was shatteringly brilliant. More than two hours of Bach, Brahms and Schumann that made the music seem to my ears to have been written just for Sokolov — unique, novel, alive, subtle, wondrous, overwhelming. For once I wasn’t depressed at the fact that 98 per cent of the audience were in their eighties or nineties, or kept their mobile phones on and coughed and snacked throughout the performance. The music made up for it — daring originality, creative freedom and the most outrageous risk-taking in live performance. And the sound he managed to produce! Utterly astonishing. If only we could hear him here.

In many ways, despite the incredible and myriad ways in which others have helped me get to where I am today, it all started with one chubby, decidedly odd and other-worldly autistic genius. His playing transformed my teenage years and inspired me in ways I’d never imagined possible. So thank you Grisha. You’ll never read this, but you are always in my mind and heart. And your tiny crystal piano with its tiny stool sits happily in my living room.