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S & H Recital Review

Bach, Brahms, Beethoven: Grigory Sokolov (piano), Wigmore Hall, 17th January 2004 (H-T W)

This important recital turned out to be dubious in many ways; it resembled more a farce than an honest undertaking. There can be no doubt about the enormous qualities of this bigger than life pianist with his huge Russian soul and his beautiful tonal resources, even if any comparison with Gilels or Richter is totally wrong. First of all, one has to ask, why Sokolov chose, or was forced, to play in a totally sold out Wigmore Hall at all. The extreme dimensions of Sokolov´s interpretations need space; the listener has to be able to breathe – the temperature in the hall reached boiling point - and to concentrate without being cramped into worn out seats and without the slightest chance, at least for me (pressed hard on the wall in row W seat 1), to follow the pianist visually. Any concert should not only be an aural, but also a visual experience. Paul Kildea, the Wigmore Hall’s new artistic director, would be well advised to change the totally archaic house policy to seat reviewers in the last two rows underneath the balcony, and instead give them aisle seats, as is common practice worldwide.

The concert should have taken place in the Barbican Hall with its ideal conditions for recitals, or at least in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. In both venues one can create the intimacy Sokolov prefers with dimmed light around him. But it was also Sokolov himself who turned the recital into a farce. I felt like being confronted with a Golem, built from clay and given life by the great composers of the past to save them from a new generation of musical rapists. Instead, he turned on them - gentle, but extremely hungry, as it seemed – and consumed their work entirely for his own purpose of self-glorification.

Seated in a glass box, he reinvented Bach´s Partita No.6 in E minor, BWV.830 in the same distant and overly sugary manner as he did the famous arrangement for left hand of Bach´s Chaconne from his Violin Partita in D minor by Johannes Brahms. Nothing really changed after the interval. Beethoven´s sadly neglected Sonata No.11 in b flat, op.22 and his monumental last Sonata No.32 in C minor, Op.111 had to cope with the same treatment. The audience did not actually disturb him, except when it applauded at the end of a work against his wishes. Sokolov, thinking in extreme durations from fast to slow as well as in volume (but not in intensity) and playing the whole program with the same beautiful, but soon boring sound colours, never made any effort to include the audience, to let them participate, to communicate his intentions. Not even the deeply emotional opening bars of the Arietta con Variazioni in op.111 created any tension. It seemed to be a mile’s distance between each chord, with no inner drive to catch my heart. "I hear your message, but I lack the trust", to quote Goethe´s `Faust´, but it was the message of Grigory Sokolov, hidden in extremes, and not Beethoven´s or – in the first half – Bach´s message.

Every artist has the right, to distil and to find different ways of expression as long as he serves the composer. In this case, I had a sleepless night. How far is one allowed, to identify oneself with a genius? One has to perceive him fully and then treat him with modesty, respect and honesty leaving one’s ego behind, trusting the composer’s intention and lighting his flame by recreating his own spirit. The most convincing example may forever be Clara Haskil.

Hans-Theodor Wohlfahrt


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