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Grigory the Great plays Bach and Schumann in Rome

May 15, 2011

Grigory the Great plays Bach and Schumann: Sokolov’s Annual Recital at Santa Cecilia , Rome
11.5.2011 (JB)  


Today’s actors seem shy about knowing how to use their voices. They may possibly move better than a previous generation and some of them may even be more photogenic, though I can think of exceptions to both those admirable traits. What troubles me is a seeming lack of interest, a diffidence, or in extreme cases, an embarrassment about how to use the voice. Actors of a previous generation would spend weeks and months summoning up – finding within themselves – which voice they needed to find to inhabit a particular role. I have in mind such icons as John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier or Peggy Ashcroft. All of them showed us that Shakespeare was all about words. Words mean voice. The right voice. Peter Hall says that Peggy Ashcroft would sometimes ring him to say that she couldn’t find the right voice within herself and therefore would not be able to accept a proposed role. Dietrich began her Hollywood career by being photogenic, but as this quality diminished, her richness of contralto voice increased: it is that haunting, sexy, smoky voice for which she is now mostly remembered. Ellen Terry was admired, not for being Juliet or Lady Macbeth, but because she was Ellen Terry (Gielgud’s aunt, by the way). Virginia Woolf tells us that when she entered the scene, she so filled the stage, you couldn’t look at anyone else. That is stage presence. It was true of Maria Callas as it was of Rudolph Nureyev, to mention two diverse stage artists.

Grigory Sokolov has a pianistic voice – a pianism, which is as instantly recognisable as it is assuredly different every time. And it does not depend, not even in the slightest, on stage presence. But where he is in communion with the great actors of the past is his quality to have delved into his innermost depths until he finds the right pianistic voice to address the music in question. We hear that this has cost him a search. And it is a search, which he generously shares with his public. Every Sokolov performance is an adventure. Obviously for him. And thrillingly for us.

In this year’s Italian Concerto, he brought into play considerations which he had not introduced into last year’s Bach pieces. This, for Sokolov, was another Bach, speaking with another voice. In these circumstances, what was familiar music becomes refreshingly innovatory. Not that the pianist makes any changes in Bach’s notation. On the contrary, there is almost a fanatical dedication to precision. And mostly, a steely tone. But there were harpsichord-inspired sounds as well as organ-inspired sounds. I say “inspired”, for these nuances made not one iota of compromise for his playing on a Steinway grand. Most daringly of all -I began to doubt my own ears and checked with friends at the interval that this had happened – in the slow movement (Andante) he introduced a cathedral-type echo in a hall which has not a trace of an echo. Some nifty pedal work there.

His independence of fingers and hands has probably never been surpassed. Those Bach voices sing with an independence and pride. Moreover there is a transparent, luminous quality to this sound. Ungaretti’s four word poem, Mattina, came to mind, in which that genial poet captures in sound the first rays of light dawning on a perfect Spring day: M’illumino d’immenso. [Don't bother with translation; if you do, you will lose the poem entirely. It is the musicality of the sound of the words which gives the "meaning" and more. ]

The courtly Bach requires a different voice from the “Italian” Bach and for the Overture in the French Style in B minor BWV 831, Sokolov duly mined it from his seemingly fathomless depths. This is a suite of courtly dance movements and the Steinway became an elegant dance partner for the pianist.

If the first part of the recital was the light side of Bach, the second was the dark side of Schumann. In March 1839, Schumann had confided in a letter to Clara, his future wife, that he was composing at the piano with laughter and tears together. This would become the B flat Humoresque Op 20, one of the earliest examples of cyclic form where the same material is used in four movements. Humoresque is best understood here as changes of mood. And of course, no better ambassador to convey those changes than Grigory Sokolov. It is a Schummanesque journey, full of unexpected turns, which the pianist takes us through with great aplomb. Under his fingers, what may have previously been perceived as Schumann’s vulgarity comes out with a tongue-in-cheek elegance, producing an unexpected brand of musical humour.

I have to admit that when it comes to the Four Pieces, Op 32, I am a dissenting voice. Schumann’s most ardent admirers agree that he is an uneven composer: anything from the sublime to the cor blimey. For me, the Opus 32 Four Pieces fall distinctly into the second category. They had, in fact, fallen into oblivion. It was Emil Gilels who was responsible for their revival. It was also Emil Gilels, who, as President of the jury, handed the first prize of the Tchaikovsky Competition to the sixteen year old Sokolov. Some years have passed since. But the next thing you know is Grigory the Great is trotting out this music. Not even under his magic fingers does it work. Coincidence, anybody?

Jack Buckley