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Beethoven, Schubert: Grigory Sokolov (piano), Laeiszhalle Hamburg, 17.2.09 (TKT)

Beethoven  Sonata in A major (op. 2/2) ;  Sonata in E-flat minor (op. 27/1)
Schubert Sonata in D major (op. 53; D 850)

Considering that Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas are often referred to as the New Testament of piano literature (as opposed to the Old Testament, Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier), audiences usually get to hear relatively few highlights from the entire collection. Among those rarely heard is surely no. 2 in A major, written when Beethoven was 25, some three years after he had moved to Vienna.

That this work is not among the all-time Beethoven favorites comes as no surprise. Much of it seems trite and conventional – the composer was clearly exploring a form handed down by his teacher Haydn, a genre he was to revolutionize over the course of the next twenty-five-plus years. This is not the Beethoven of grand gestures but one who can strike an often rollicking, even remarkably humorous, note. There is an abundance of musical ideas in this early sonata, but they are rather simple and without much emotional drama.

Sokolov tends to play works in a way that makes them seem new even to those who thought they were familiar with them. This is not to say that he tries to reinterpret works for the sake of doing things differently however. His interpretations are never forced but always organic: it is as if he made the music all his own before putting his hands on the keys. Even when a work appears to be disparate, he invariably brings out its unity which  makes him an ideal candidate for Beethoven, whose mood swings can be as aggravating as a teenager during a particularly difficult phase. It is characteristic of Sokolov’s art that creates musical entities: unlike other pianists, he does not take compositions as a pretext for advertising his technical brilliance (which he certainly possesses). He  is not an illusionist but a genuine magician and poet -  the virtuoso as first servant of his music, to modify a phrase by Frederick the Great.

Sokolov’s genius for understanding compositions as a whole even goes beyond the individual works. He instantly interrupted the first attempts at applause after the last note of the A major sonata had died down and began playing the so-called Moonshine Sonata’s “older sister.” Consequently, we heard the similarities between the two works: each begins with a rather banal theme that is then skillfully explored; both play with the form of the variation (in which Beethoven is unsurpassed); the Allegro molto vivace contains elements of song, as does the Largo appassionato of op. 2/2; and both sonatas progress toward an intense final movement.

This sense of organic development continued in Schubert’s D major sonata, also a fantasia-like work with its numerous musical ideas and improvisational passages. (As fresh and sometimes lyrical as this work is, it is in part “divinely long drawn-out,” as Schumann observed – and we are hard put to decide which of the two epithets is the operative word.) Schubert’s “Second Grand Sonata” was obviously influenced by Beethoven, even in its attempt to break with the traditional sonata form. Sokolov’s touch – forceful even when it is tender – perfectly conveyed the work’s Beethoven-like searching, insistent quality.

Sadly, Grigory Sokolov is as stingy when it comes to recordings as he is with interviews. He expresses himself in music, and his interlocutors of choice are not microphones but audiences. Accordingly, he is generous with respect to encores. After over two hours of his regular program, he played for another half hour, to thunderous applause and a standing ovation. Magical!

Thomas K Thornton