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.