Sokolov in Berlin: Feb 1998

Last night I had the opportunity to hear Grigory Sokolov in recital in the small hall of the Berlin Philharmonic. The program consisted of a selection of Rameau pieces, Beethoven's sonata Op. 31.1 in G-major and the first Brahms sonata in C-major Op. 1.

I admit that the program did not sound that attractive to me, but given the attention this pianist receives on the newsgroup, I was curious enough attend - and I was rewarded with one of the most exciting, intriguing and revealing piano recitals I have ever attended.

I only knew few of the Rameau pieces ("La Poule" and one of the minuets) and was surprised at Sokolov's stylistic approach. This giant of a man sat at the keyboard and created the impression of caressing a harpsichord. Very delicate use of the pedal and complete clarity in the texture made this an experience I had not expected. His trills are not from this world; I doubt any pianist at the moment can produce as even and delicate trills as Sokolov can. The evenness of sound especially in pianissimo sections was breathtaking and left me in awe about his technical capabilities.

Before Sokolov started the Beethoven sonata, I rememberd the reviewer's last sentence from the San Francisco recital: "I want to hear Sokolov play Beethoven my last day on Earth." I did not know what to expect and what followed was the most unearthly performance of this sonata. He started with quite a slow tempo, but managed to emphasise the syncopes between the left and right hand, making one think that Beethoven wanted to mock about pianists who constantly play the melody before the bass line (ABM leaps to mind...). Sokolov used the widest possible dynamic of the piano and did this with sparing use of the pedal. He managed to create an atmosphere of wit that was audible throughout the whole piece. Need I mention the awesome technical superiority with which he managed those treacherous double notes in the side theme? The second movement is one of my favourites of all the sonatas and Sokolov gave truly remarkable rendition with the slowest tempo I have heard in this movement. Of course, the music reads "Adagio grazioso" and not "Andante grazioso". Sokolov's breathtaking legato, delicate use of the pedal and unbelievable colours in shaping the melodic line made this movement one of the highlights of the evening. To me this movement always carries the picture of a virtuoso soprano and a dull accompanist who remains strictly in tempo, no matter what la primadonna does. Sokolov's rendition emphasised this to such an extent that I could not help smiling.

After intermission: Brahms. I admit that the first sonata is not one of my favourite pieces and I still feel that the f-minor sonata is much superior as a work. Sokolov played this piece with astounding bravura. The technical feats of the Scherzo and the Finale turned out to present no problem to this pianist. The treacherous leaps in the Scherzo before the Trio, those cascades of filled octaves, the thirds and wide leaps in the finale: no problem. I found myself muttering "This is not going to work" when he started the coda of the Finale in an unbelievable tempo, but Sokolov's technique is in a class of its own and of course, the final thirds and filled octave cascades before the final cadenza came out with incredible clarity and accuracy I have never heard before. The most astounding thing in this recital, however, was not his technique (which certainly ranks with the great ones like Rachmaninoff, Hofman, Horowitz or <insert your favourite pianist here>: The way Sokolov approaches music making is much more exciting and revealing than any technical stunts he may pull. There is no atmosphere of a circus stunt, simply a performer who takes the music seriously as it is written in the score.

Sokolov ended the recital with three encores: Brahms' Intermezzo Op. 117.3, the postum c-sharp minor Nocturne by Chopin and "Canopes" from Debussy's Vol. II of the Preludes. I have heard Michelangeli perform the last of these pieces and I must admit that I found Sokolov's rendition more heartfelt, more appealing in sound and simply more moving than ABM's.

Sokolov is 48 years old now and on his way to a major career, even though he is not with one of the major labels. At the moment I do not see any other pianist in this class and I can only hope that he will come forward with many new, interesting programmes in the future. I can only urge anyone to try to hear him as soon as possible: This man is a giant!

Peter Lemken Berlin