When Fame Can’t Cross the Atlantic
Artists Management Company
Grigory Sokolov, a star in Europe, stopped issuing CDs in 1995.
By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
Published: April 17, 2008
BERLIN — On Tuesday evening the Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov played, as he does dozens of times a year throughout Europe, to an ecstatic, sold-out house. It filled the Kammermusiksaal here. An unsmiling bear of a man onstage with a babyish face and a white, monkish fringe of hair, Mr. Sokolov emerged looking shy and downcast, as if he hoped no one would notice him. He scuttled to the instrument, head bowed, then plunged in, pawing the keys.
Even a century ago, news about musical heavyweights traveled constantly between the continents, along with the musicians themselves. When the cold war heated up during the postwar era, Soviet stars were, for a while, prohibited from traveling, but the aura of many of these players blossomed as a consequence of their seclusion and they benefited, sometimes disproportionately to their actual talent, when they finally made it to the West. This wasn’t the case with Mr. Sokolov.
Classical music is supposedly universal. Language may still be a cultural barrier for writers and actors. Even visual artists, depending on the subjects they choose, won’t necessarily translate abroad.
That Mr. Sokolov, whose talent is beyond dispute, disproves this notion should remind us not only of our persistent parochialism but also of our delusions about technology. The Web, on which he can be found on YouTube, giving astonishing performances, clearly doesn’t substitute for hearing him live. Neither do discs, which, as a perfectionist, he stopped issuing in 1995 (this partly explains his American situation), although years ago Mr. Sokolov’s recordings sent me hunting for a chance to hear him in person. On one of those discs he played Chopin’s 24 Preludes with great sensitivity. He played them again the other night. It was, like all concerts likely to stay in the mind forever, nothing that could ever be captured digitally.
He gives about 60 solo recitals a year, so his manager told me; no chamber or orchestral music at the moment. He was born in Leningrad and won the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1966, at 16. Emil Gilels headed the jury. For a while Sol Hurok promoted him.
Clearly he has his pride. The other day he withdrew from two sold-out recitals that were to take place in May in Glasgow and London because of new visa requirements imposed by Britain on Russian visitors, which after many years of playing there he found too onerous and insulting. An editorial in The Independent of London lamented a government policy, spurred by transnational conflict, that “ends up divesting us of cultural riches” like “the great Russian-born pianist.”
So, temperament (Mr. Sokolov has plenty), poor luck, myopic concert agents and — who is to say? — perhaps contentment with life as it is for him in Europe seem to have conspired to prevent stardom in America; not any lack of musical genius, that’s for sure. It’s America’s loss.
He tackled two Mozart sonatas before the Chopin preludes Tuesday night. In his case an imposing, muscular, distinctly Russian technique combines with large, church-bell sonority. Even small preludes occasionally invoked Mussorgsky. A tendentious, soulful interpreter by inclination, he avoids any hint of routine. One imagines he never allows himself to play anything the same way twice. Sometimes, as in the Mozart, this leads toward mannerism. Humorous he is certainly not. Purists might balk, but never is he just perverse or uninteresting. At heart he’s a colorist, an intimist, melancholic, with astonishing tonal nuances and an endless, much-trafficked variety of touches.
The slow movements of the sonatas acquired moments of gravity that seemed almost to have physical weight. But the preludes were the true revelation: profoundly original, magisterial, heartfelt. The audience sat through them in complete, rapt silence. Long lines breathed to an elastic rhythm. Preludes like the one in B flat minor galloped and raced. Those in F sharp and D flat produced moments of faraway, unearthly beauty. I can’t at the moment recall anything like them.
Here was a great artist. If his case proves anything, it’s that Europe and America remain separated by more than an ocean. After he had been called back for encore after encore — a half-dozen by the end — the crowd still stood and roared. Mr. Sokolov finally retreated, as he had arrived, expressionless, with a brusque nod, bent slightly at the waist, one hand fastened behind his back like a captain on the deck of his ship, facing into a nasty head wind.