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Sokolov brilliantly eccentric

Timothy Pfaff
  Jan. 24, 1998

Russian pianist stuns Herbst in rare U.S. appearance

WHAT DO THEY put in the drinking water in St. Petersburg? On Thursday night Russia's canaled "Venice of the North" dispatched young Arcadi Volodos to deliver an inspired Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto for the Symphony. On Friday the city's most legendary pianist, Grigory Sokolov, made his Bay Area debut in a San Francisco Performances recital sure to go down as one of the most distinctive musical events of the decade.

The Russian Richard Goode (he shares his American counterpart's portly physique, stooped posture, gray mane and eccentric performing mannerisms), stunned his Herbst Theatre audience with a staunchly individual, supremely imaginative, daring, confounding, maddening, nerve-wracking and frequently transporting display of a kind of pianism, musicianship and artistry one thought had vanished forever. The intermission found small coteries of scoffers rolling their eyes at their far more numerous auditorium mates all but walking into walls in mostly speechless private ecstasies.

Something happens when Grigory Sokolov plays.

It was happening even before the pianist won the Gold Medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1966 - at 16. It continued to happen at sufficient fever pitch that the Soviet authorities refused him the right to perform in the West granted to colleagues such as Sviatoslav Richter, from whom he seems to have acquired an insistence on playing in halls kept in sepulchral darkness.

In a still-rare American appearance Friday, Sokolov gave notice of a consummate technique with an opening salvo of startlingly idiomatic Rameau, a composer of harpsichord music so rarely heard on the modern piano one has to go back to Marcelle Meyer in the 1940s for a comparable precedent. Even when Sokolov seemed to be meditating on the composer's late, advanced treatises on harmony as much as playing the G-Major Suite from the "Nouvelles Suites de Pieces de Clavecin," the sound was gossamer and airborne, the deftly turned ornaments wildly expressive in their coruscating dance.

The finger work is so weirdly brilliant that Sokolov reached the final, rapt note of the first of three encores, a Chopin Lento, with his middle finger in a backhand flip off pivot of the little finger. Piano pedagogues beware. But Sokolov has at his disposal a pallette of colors that seems bigger than a concert grand, a touch that ranges from bourdon bass to descants of whispers and a finely calibrated internal timekeeper that affords him a rhythmic freedom and elasticity of phrase unequaled among pianists today.

On the turn of a synapse he follows familiar music in directions one could not have imagined and then makes them feel inevitable and supremely right. Even the playing that bothers you the worst bothers you the best, making you have a better idea if you think better (and you probably don't).

There are consequences, of course. The Brahms C-Major Sonata, Op. 1, which followed a 45-minute intermission (during which who knows what new spirit possessed him), ran off the rails nearly as much as it was on. Yet Sokolov's reading - at once the most monumental and the most intimate in my experience - blew away standard notions of the key of C Major or catalog No. 1.

But more important, there are truths. The Beethoven G-Major Sonata, Op. 31, No. 1, which preceded intermission, was a tablets-brought-down-from-the-mountain experience. Sokolov took the piece, already built on the keenest of contrasts, to dizzying heights of exploration. By its artistic sweat-stained final pages - the pianist wasn't breaking one - the composer's rests, sublime in their spaciousness and silence - were meaningful as any sounds earthling pianists make.

I want to hear Sokolov play Beethoven my last day on Earth.

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2000 San Francisco Examiner
originally printed by the Hearst Examiner   Page B 1

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