After Yundi Li's eminently disappointing
recital over at the QEH the night before, what a relief it was to hear a
real musician in action. What Li lacked in interpretative depth was there
in spades in Sokolov's revelatory readings.
Sokolov plays in subdued lighting. Far from being a
gimmick, this focused the attention on the music itself. In doing so, it
seemed to add to the audience's capacity for concentration. The lighting
was remarkably effective in the Bach (French Suite No. 3 in B minor),
where the absolutely crystal quality of Sokolov's articulation contributed
to the almost tangible purity of the experience. The Suite included the
robust and the whispered all emanating from ten completely equal fingers
(the Gigue was spectacularly even).
Beethoven's 'Tempest' Sonata seemed to emerge
organically from the Bach. The contrasts that lie at the heart of the
first movement were even more stark than usual because of Sokolov's
awareness of the modernity of some of Beethoven's writing, particularly
the unaccompanied, pedaled recitatives that presaged the deep, desolate
slow movement. The ominous edge of the bass tremolandi was especially
memorable as was, in the finale, the dance-like left-hand (the turbulence
was a surprise when it came). One could wonder open-mouthed at the careful
balancing between the treble-mid-bass strata, but what mattered most was
that this was a beautifully proportioned outpouring.
So to Schumann's F sharp minor Piano Sonata, Op. 11.
By pure coincidence Sokolov's biography mentions that this pianist was
championed by Emil Gilels, and that very afternoon I had heard Gilels'
1948 Moscow recording (Andromeda 3CD box, ANDRCD5046). The links were
certainly there - both pianists use little pedal, both seem completely
enthralled by the work and both performances had an intensity running
through them that was nothing less than riveting. But Sokolov was live and
I was there, so of course he would be more electric.
Moments of infinite tenderness rubbed shoulders with
pompous swagger, astonishing fantasy, echt-Schumannesque quirkiness and
Lisztian bass tremolandi. There seemed to be an organic growth towards the
work's coda. I can imagine no greater performance than this.
The audience's enthusiasm was rewarded with no less
than six encores (four Chopin, one Bach/Siloti and one Bach). The sheer
ease of Chopin's Fantasie-Impromptu was perhaps the most memorable of the
Sokolov in the final analysis reminded me why I do
this (write about music, I mean). Ironically, Yundi Li made me wonder why.