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Bach, Brahms and Schumann:  Grigory Sokolov (piano) Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Santa Cecilia Hall at Parco della Musica, Rome 18.3.2010 (JB)

Bach –Partita no 2 in C minor BWV 826;
Brahms –Fantasia Op 116;
Schumann- Sonata in F minor Op14 (Concerto without orchestra)

Unique Sokolov

Grigory Sokolov is unique; he is in a pianistic category which he alone occupies; moreover, this uniqueness is multi-faced. I should attempt to explain why. Looking at the parameters which he has set for his performances is a good place to start. He has abandoned performances with orchestras, since as he asks, where is he going to find a conductor with the same approach and ideas as he, as to how the particular concerto should be played? –and even assuming that obstacle could be overcome, where would he find an orchestra willing to dedicate the rehearsal time to ensure that all the nuances are securely in place? Nuances –by which I mean subtle, finely-tuned, sometimes original, pianistic colours- feature highly on Sokolov’s list of requirements. Yet these nuances should not be so secure that they leave no place for further discovery. Every concert is an act of discovery. Failure here, means a failed concert in Sokolov terms. Don’t assume that you have heard Sokolov play, say, the Chopin Studies; the next performance will be different. Performance as invention. There are other pianists who work hard at this aspect of playing (think of the young Pogorelich) but they don’t usually accomplish the amazing results of Sokolov: the last performance of a piece comes across as the one with the authoritative seal. And even with the joy with which you receive the performance, you know that it is unique: the next one will be different, another act of discovery.

Please don’t think that all this depends on what is in the pianist’s head, or even his fingers. Of course, in part it does, but predominantly, it depends on his relationship to the instrument. As the concert promoter, you are required to assure him that he will have the hall with the instrument all to himself for the full day of an evening recital and with all doors closed. Were you to look through a crack in the door, you may be dismayed to see your new Steinway concert grand in pieces all over the platform floor, with Sokolov using his mechanic’s kit to make such adjustments to the action that he and the Steinway may most effectively talk to one another. Mechanics: that makes number three in the Sokolov uniqueness catalogue. (Nuances and invention were numbers one and two, to save you looking back.) 

He refuses to make studio recordings, though there has been a concession to the French and Russians to record some live recitals. When he was informed that for non EU nationals, the British visa application form required finger prints, he was instantly reminded of the oppressions of the Soviet era and replied that he had left all that behind. London music lovers protested against the stupidity of this regulation, but no avail: Britain’s Foreign Office chose to deny him entry. Italy is more welcoming. Six years ago at his Rome recital, he was made an academician of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, where he returns annually –usually at this time of year- to give a recital.

This year’s recital began with the second partita of Bach. I am forced to call upon an oxymoron to describe his playing here: controlled freedom. Throughout the six movements, the juxtaposing melodies were as free as the birds of the air –the kind of effect where one is convinced that the music is playing itself. But at the same time, there was a steely control which gave muscle and electrifying shape to the music. A demon god seems to be in command. Or should that be the Bach archangel? Whichever way you try to describe this playing, contradictions alone will suffice: ethereal earthiness would be another real, unlikely pair. Felicitous contradictions ought to be number four in the Sokolov uniqueness catalogue. They aptly illustrate Wilde’s observation that a truth in art is one whose opposite is also true. 

The Brahms Fantasia Op 116 came next. Here he turns the piano into a whole orchestra with sounds you never heard before, not even from Sokolov. (I admit I haven’t previously heard him play Brahms.) The sonorities are rich, varied and subtle, shading in and out of the phrases as they weave the way of a thrilling sense of direction. And Brahms’s directions, through theCapriccio (Presto energico) to the second intermezzo (Andante con grazia ed intimissimo sentimento) proved an excellent vehicle for the Sokolov genius. Brahms surely never had such a dedicated, faithful servant.

There was an attractive impetuosity in his account of Schumann’s Sonata in F minor, Op.14, sometimes called Concerto without Orchestra. So much of Schumann depends on the subtleties of change of mood. Too often, these mood changes are clumsy and vulgar. Not so here; the listener finds himself launched into a Schummanesque mood without any obvious gear change; only in re-play can one hear that a change has been made –the effect of having arrived in new musical terrain without any perceptible departure from a former one. Piano playing doesn’t come greater than this. 

Six encores –I thought I counted four Chopin and two Scriabin- all miniatures, but presented through Sokolov mind and fingers, they each sparkled like the jewels they were certainly meant to be. There was recording apparatus in evidence at this recital. We can only hope that the Accademia are planning a CD of this unforgettable evening. Interested parties please watch this space. 

Jack Buckley