At the Sintra Festival near Lisbon, Grigory Sokolov gives a perfectly considered performance of Haydn, Prokofiev and Komitas





Sintra's new Centro Cultural Olga Cadaval, in honey-colored wood throughout, has just been christened, and the Sintra Festival has allowed it to be broken in like a new car: Grigory Sokolov's recital proved that its acoustics for chamber music are excellent. The concert also will have proved, to anyone who did not already know, what a consummate artist this reclusive Russian pianist is.

Haydn's Sonata No. 38 is generally disdained by recitalists as being too straightforward to be interesting, but in Sokolov's hands it became something rich and rare. The crisp movement with which it opens came clad in intimate warmth and unfurled with a lovely candor. The pianist used a singing tone, a light touch and the merest hint of pedal, to the point where the big Steinway sounded almost like an 18th-century fortepiano. He brought an exquisite decorum to the slow movement, with its simple trilled theme, propelling it with a gentle but rock-steady pulse; his dynamics in the last movement were so finely calibrated that though their contrasts were technically small, the effect was intensely dramatic.

There was no pause for applause before the next Haydn sonata: this half of the concert was to be one seamless train of thought. The showy brilliance of this work may have earned it a place in the regular repertoire, but once again Sokolov revealed a wealth of beauty and strangeness. Concluding with a familiar favorite, No. 53 in E Minor, he deployed an artless charm in the first and second movements, and took the liberating finale at a pace which seemed sedate, but was actually designed to let us savor every detail of Haydn's exhilarating tracery.

The second half opened with something extraordinary: Six Dances for Piano by the Armenian composer Komitas Vardapet. Sokolov himself had made these arrangements from a variety of manuscript sources: Komitas, one of the earliest ethnomusicologists, was driven into terminal madness by the Turkish massacres of 1915 and left voluminous unedited transcriptions of the music he had found in Armenian villages. What Sokolov has created out of them is absolutely sui generis. Employing bare octaves, and often turning on the contrast between extreme legato and a susurrating staccato, this arrangement would be dismissed by most exponents as an irredeemably unflattering kind of pianism, but Sokolov imbued it with magic. The lilting rhythms and widely spaced voices suggested village instruments like the tambourine and duduk; by the end of the sixth dance, we could happily have listened to six more. The ensuing Prokofiev's Sonata No. 7 was full-tilt, flawless virtuosity.

Michael Church