Grigory Sokolov
By Hilary Finch
Wigmore Hall


WHAT a piece of work is man. That's the thought that springs to mind on hearing the five fingers of a single human hand take on the universe which is the Chaconne from Bach's Violin Partita in D minor — as arranged for piano, left hand, by Brahms. And especially when played by Grigory Sokolov, something of a phenomenon of creation himself. Sokolov, a physical and intellectual giant of a man, has something of a cult following. And it's easy to see why. Like Richter or Michelangeli, he plays in a dim, religious light, hunched over the keyboard with massively round shoulders. And, like nobody else apart from himself really, he plays with an obsessive and relentless intensity which elicits obsessive and often unreserved admiration. 

There is, after all, much to admire. Sokolov's fingers can do anything required of them: the clarity of articulation is total; the power of a crescendo seemingly infinite; the sheer strength at the forging point of mental observation and physical realisation breathtaking. In the Brahms-Bach, a vast range of colours and dynamics delineated figuration and form. Not only did we hear the miracle of complex counterpoint within a single line, as in the violin original, but, within Sokolov's left hand, a range of resonance and velocity which made his playing sound like that of a mighty organ, with a vast bank of stops and pedals. 

Sokolov seemed to be trying to recapture the "extreme excitement and emotional tension" that Brahms felt would have driven him mad, had he composed the original himself. 

He had already generated a fair head of steam in Bach's own keyboard Partita No 6 in E minor — so much so, that he spurned any applause in between the two pieces. It was difficult to imagine the Partita's movements had ever grown out of dance: each one was, in Sokolov's hands, a monument to itself, and to every detail of its making. 

But, for me, everything Sokolov eats, as it were, turns into Sokolov. 

His Beethoven Sonata No 11, Op 22, was worked through with that same obsessiveness, from the driven Allegro con brio to the almost suffocatingly close-focus slow movement. Little grace in the Menuetto, little sense of elation in the Rondo — just the albeit mesmeric concentration of one mind intoxicated by another. 

Many in the audience, I sense, felt Sokolov's Beethoven Sonata No 32, Op 111 to be his finest hour. For me, it missed the mark. The spirit seemed to be struggling for release in the too solid flesh of the work's making. As Arietta moved into finale, this was art which did not conceal art so much as reveal it at its most monumental; but also at its most stubbornly material.