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Seen and Heard Recital Review


Bach, Beethoven, Schumann: Grigory Sokolov (piano), Barbican Hall, 16.05.2006 (CC)

After Yundi Li's eminently disappointing recital over at the QEH the night before, what a relief it was to hear a real musician in action. What Li lacked in interpretative depth was there in spades in Sokolov's revelatory readings.

Sokolov plays in subdued lighting. Far from being a gimmick, this focused the attention on the music itself. In doing so, it seemed to add to the audience's capacity for concentration. The lighting was remarkably effective in the Bach (French Suite No. 3 in B minor), where the absolutely crystal quality of Sokolov's articulation contributed to the almost tangible purity of the experience. The Suite included the robust and the whispered all emanating from ten completely equal fingers (the Gigue was spectacularly even).

Beethoven's 'Tempest' Sonata seemed to emerge organically from the Bach. The contrasts that lie at the heart of the first movement were even more stark than usual because of Sokolov's awareness of the modernity of some of Beethoven's writing, particularly the unaccompanied, pedaled recitatives that presaged the deep, desolate slow movement. The ominous edge of the bass tremolandi was especially memorable as was, in the finale, the dance-like left-hand (the turbulence was a surprise when it came). One could wonder open-mouthed at the careful balancing between the treble-mid-bass strata, but what mattered most was that this was a beautifully proportioned outpouring.

So to Schumann's F sharp minor Piano Sonata, Op. 11. By pure coincidence Sokolov's biography mentions that this pianist was championed by Emil Gilels, and that very afternoon I had heard Gilels' 1948 Moscow recording (Andromeda 3CD box, ANDRCD5046). The links were certainly there - both pianists use little pedal, both seem completely enthralled by the work and both performances had an intensity running through them that was nothing less than riveting. But Sokolov was live and I was there, so of course he would be more electric.

Moments of infinite tenderness rubbed shoulders with pompous swagger, astonishing fantasy, echt-Schumannesque quirkiness and Lisztian bass tremolandi. There seemed to be an organic growth towards the work's coda. I can imagine no greater performance than this.

The audience's enthusiasm was rewarded with no less than six encores (four Chopin, one Bach/Siloti and one Bach). The sheer ease of Chopin's Fantasie-Impromptu was perhaps the most memorable of the six.

Sokolov in the final analysis reminded me why I do this (write about music, I mean). Ironically, Yundi Li made me wonder why.

Colin Clarke




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