Stellar Russian pianist holds audience in thrall
After a stunningly unique program, it took four encores to convince the crowd that it was time to call it a night.

Special to The Globe and Mail
Thursday, November 25, 1999

Toronto -- At Jane Mallet Theatre in Toronto, on Tuesday

It would be possible -- and a kind of shortcut -- to describe the phenomenal recital of the 49-year-old Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov, Tuesday night at the Jane Mallett Theatre, by invoking the names of some half-dozen other pianists.

One could draw comparisons between individual qualities in Sokolov's playing and the delicacy of Gieseking; the technical prowess (and that throaty roar in the bass) of Horowitz; the intellectual acuity and inspired wilfulness of Gould; the inner authority of Richter; the lyrical musicality of Gilels; or the vast rhythmic appetite of Bachauer.

But in the end this wouldn't do, because it would suggest something compartmentalized and even fragmented in what is a very big and wide-ranging, but extraordinarily centred, communicative ability. Sokolov, at different moments, does bring to mind all those famous players of the past, but he is not a reincarnation of any of them because he is so very much himself.

His program, for a start, was stunningly his own. I wondered if Music Toronto had been able to lure this big pianist to little Jane Mallett Theatre by promising he could play whatever he wanted. I cannot imagine the average concert manager permitting half an hour of Froberger for the opening of a Russian virtuoso's recital. But, as Sokolov was able to demonstrate Tuesday, that's a pity. Five riveting individual keyboard pieces and one exquisite four-movement partita by the 17th-century forerunner of Bach were so deeply understood, so fully inhabited and so eloquently articulated by this pianist that we were transfixed by them. Like Horowitz's celebrated interpretations of the much slighter music of Scarlatti, Sokolov's performances of Froberger made full use of the resources of the modern concert grand, but justified this by the magical sensitivity of his control.

over a musical work and to live wholly within every part of it, was even more evident. I have not heard so gripping an account of this sonata since the great Italian pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli held me spellbound in it during his last visit to Toronto. And yet, the only similarity between the two performances was their irresistible power to persuade.

The formal part of the recital ended with a lavish, unstinting, rhapsodic communication of Chopin's Third Sonata. By the end of this, the audience was so unbridled in its enthusiasm, it took Sokolov four encores -- including more Chopin, a coruscating onslaught on the Toccata from Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin, and a slightly exaggerated reading of Brahms's Intermezzo Opus 117, No. 2 -- to send the crowd home, exhausted but happy.