Roy Thomson Hall 28 February 1996
J.S. BACH 8 Preludes and Fugues CHOPIN 4 Nocturnes - STRAVINSKI Petroushka
The Totonto Star, 29/02/96

Russian pianist Sokolov plays to cheers


When the Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov made his Toronto Symphony debut last. season, playing Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, Roy Thomson Hall erupted in cheers. His re-engagement quickly followed.

But when he turned up again last night under the orchestra's auspices, it was not to play a concerto but rather to give an even more revelatory solo recital, ranging from Bach through Chopin to Stravinsky.

And again there was cheering at the corner of King and Simcoe.

Who is Grigory Sokolov? No beardless youth, certainly. It was as long ago as 1966, at the astonishing age of 16, that he won the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow, thereby launching an international career. Only it wasn't so much of an international career as one might have anticipated, thanks to the cloistering circumstances of the Cold War. Not until the liberating force of Gorbachovian glasnost took over in the late '80s did the true magnitude of Sokolov's artistry become widely apparent in the concert halls of the West. Like so many Russian prize-winners, he has fingers of enormous speed and power. Your humble servant remembers being bowled over in his distant youth by Gina Bachauer's playing of Stravinsky's Three Movements From Petrouchka, but by comparison with the hands flying, rhythmically biting virtuosity of Sokolov's playing last night, Bachauer, as the British would say, wasn't in it.

What was most remarkable about his playing, however, was less its speed and power than its poetic sensitivity, In the course of playing four Chopin Nocturnes, he effectively reduced the vast spaces of Roy Thomson Hall to the dimensions of a Parisian salon.

He daringly began the E Minor Nocturne, Op.72 at a dynamic level close to inaudibility and the C Minor Nocturne, Op. 48 at a tempo close to that of a dirge. Yet such was his ability to divine the poetic meaning of each piece that his choices were easily vindicated.

The Russian school at its best cultivates a remarkable range of tone color and Sokolov wedded this coloristic skill to a seemingly innate sense of rhythmic flexibility to make of the Nocturnes evocative mood pieces.

At times he seemed to be playing with velvet paws, so caressing was his touch. At other times he built up dynamic climaxes that raised the emotional temperature well beyond what his initial series of intimate whisperings might have led one to expect.

His Bach may have sounded even more challenging to those who cut their Well Tempered Clavier teeth on the playing of the late Glenn Gould. Sokolov's survey of Book II, which occupied the first half of his recital, was far more round of tone and smooth of phrase. If Gould's accented, detached attack generated greater rhythmic momentum, Sokolov's cultivated sense of a sustained line brought exceptional clarity to Bach's contrapuntal writing.

Neither pianist played by current musicological rules. Both made Bach's music live.