June 07, 2007

Sokolov does it Steinway

Grigory Sokolov - Wigmore Hall, 6 June 2007


Schubert: Piano Sonata in C minor D. 958

Skryabin: Prelude and Nocturne Op. 9, Piano Sonata No. 3 in F sharp minor Op. 23, Deux poèmes Op. 69, Piano Sonata No. 10 Op. 70, Vers la flamme poème Op. 72

There was a full turnout for this rare Sokolov appearance, and his tardiness in emerging on to the platform just amplified the already buzzing levels of anticipation in the Wigmore Hall.

Sokolov trotted briskly on to the stage, sat straight down and plunged right into the Schubert without even appearing to notice the audience, let alone acknowledge them. This piece is so frequently played in London that there are plenty of readings to compare Sokolov's with, but I've never heard it quite like this. From the outset, Sokolov demonstrated impeccable articulation, a total control that respected every single note and presented each with an outstanding clarity. Even in the fastest passages, nothing was smudged or skipped, and his pedalling just illuminated his work even further. And the colours and details! His palette is so rich and varied it was like seeing the sonata through a microscope. Every variation of tempo, dynamics and touch was magnified, the adagio truly slow, the fortes terrifyingly loud, the staccatos crisply stabbed. And each of the numerous repeated passages was inflected differently - subtly but legibly.

I really can't think of any points of reference for Sokolov's style - it is uniquely and immediately obviously his own. If I had to knock anything (and really this is more of a comment than a criticism), it would be that he never wavers from his default mode of Very Serious, even in the lighter passages such as the tarantella in the final allegro of the Schubert,  usually tackled with a hint of jauntiness even in the most austere of interpretations. Maybe this is simply his artistic choice, but I did get the notion, partly I guess from his onstage manner, that if you told him a joke he probably wouldn't get it. But this may be a hugely unfair characterisation. Nevertheless, I'd love to hear him tackle a piece that positively requires a sense of humour.

The evening's programming was simply brilliant. Not only in following the Schubert with a couple of Chopinesque early Skryabins, leading naturally into Skryabin's late post-romantic work, but simply in playing Skryabin, a composer rarely heard in London, at all. This second half gave Sokolov even more scope to demonstrate his total technical mastery over his instrument, coaxing the most extraordinary variety of sounds from it to weave Skryabin's filigree arpeggiated and trilled textures together. Even the first piece, using left hand only, he deftly filled out till it sounded more like four hands than one in places. A performance like this makes the best possible case for more Skryabin programming.

A striking aspect of his performance was his great physical grace, all the more unexpected from someone of his ursine heft and hunched posture. His hands floated over the keyboard, crossing delicately, striking with decisive strength, never with the crudeness of brute force. When the dynamics were cranked up, he supplied the volume with power rather than effort, and the impression was always that he had more in reserve.

He didn't take much persuading to return to the platform for around five (I stopped counting) encores, all popular Chopin - whether he was playing these to please us or himself was hard to tell from his perenially inscrutable expression.