The "Anti-Pianist"
Carlo Vitali

Grigory Sokolov offers a surprising and demanding program of keyboard works at Bellinzona's piano festival.


Grigory Sokolov (piano)
Sunday 20 May 2001
Teatro Sociale, Bellinzona, Switzerland

F. Couperin: Ordres XIII and XVIII from Book III of Piиces de clavecin
Mozart: Fantasia and Sonata in C minor, K. 475/457
Franck: Prйlude, chorale et fugue in B minor


History flows like a motion picture here in the peaceful heart of Europe: on Bellinzona's Piazza Grande, right in the grim and towering shadow of the Three Castles (recently declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO), rises the pretty Teatro Sociale, designed in the 1840s by the Milanese architect Giacomo Moraglia. Having narrowly escaped demolition during the proudly modernist 1960s, and after historically accurate restorations, the theater now hosts the festival "Pianoforte a Bellinzona."

Among the select 300 filling the sold-out house on May 20, not a few were the children and grandchildren of former Czarist йmigrйs, still speaking Russian with a hint of that German accent which was regarded as fashionable at Nicholas II's court. They flocked to Bellinzona from every part of Switzerland to hear the St. Petersburg-born pianist and student of Emil Gilels, Grigory Sokolov, in an odd program featuring music not primarily written for the modern piano. (The Couperin was composed for harpsichord, the Mozart for Classical-era fortepiano, the Franck for organ.) Sokolov met this unusual challenge in an unusual way. Although Sviatoslav Richter's photophobia is not yet a recognized epidemic, it seems to be spreading among pianists. (Radu Lupu is another casualty.) In a thick darkness, broken only by a dim spotlight on the stand of his concert grand, Sokolov put the audience under the spell of his keyboard magic.

In this setting, of course, there was no idle arguing about the "authenticity" of playing these works on a modern concert grand. On the contrary, a frequently asked question during the intermission was: "Why so many trills throughout the Couperin pieces?" To put it another way: if, on the piano (unlike the harpsichord), one can sustain notes naturally, an outright pianistic reading might well involve more pedalling and legato (and fewer trills and other such devices). The Mozart which followed seemed an implicit reply to such questions. Sokolov approached the Fantasia K. 475 (1785) in a restrained mood, emphazising suspensions, unequal rhythmic values and asymmetrical phrasings as if he were actually improvising. The related Sonata K. 457, composed earlier in 1784, was performed with an overtly Sturm und Drang theatricality - though with a peculiarly Mozartean heart-rending bliss in the cantabile middle movement. All in all, an impressive traditional showpiece, one rarely heard today except in historical recordings.

Although a good technician, Sokolov often allows his bounteous confidence to drag him into muddy waters, perhaps unnecessarily: his rash changes in pace and dynamics occasionally result in avant-garde harmonic clashes or false relations. This was less of a problem in the Franck triptych, a puzzling graft of late 19th-century pianistic virtuosity onto time-honored organistic branches: prelude-and-fugue plus sonata form - a sound storm on such a broad scale that little or no mental space was left for attention to petty details. Then came the encores: four Chopin short pieces which showed Sokolov at his best, in an almost instinctive surrender to the pleasure of singing and dancing (figuratively) on the keyboard. After so much intellectual strain, this straightforward enjoyment came as a welcome relief - one which elicited from the audience a grateful and none-too-late response.