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Grigory Sokolov plays Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms
CD 1 and 2
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Art of the Fugue, BWV 1080 (circa 1749-50)
Partita No. 2, BWV 826 (circa 1727)
rec. Gramzapis Studio, St. Petersburg, Russia, 1982
(available individually on OPUS 111, OP30346)
CD 3
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Rondo in C major, Op. 51, No. 1 (1797)
Rondo in G major, Op. 51, No. 2 (1800)
Rondo alla ingharese quasi un capriccio (Rage over a lost penny), Op. 129 (1795)
Sonata No. 4 in E flat major, Op. 7 (1797)
Sonata No. 28 in A major, Op. 101 (1816)
rec. Villa dei Cedri, Cola di Lazise, Italy, March 1991
(available singly on OPUS 111, OP30420)
CD 4
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
24 Préludes, Op. 28 (1831-39)
rec. Salle Adyar, Paris, France, June 1990
(available singly on OPUS 111, OP30336)
CD 5
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Four Ballades, Op. 10 (1854)
Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 5 (1853)
rec. Salle Gaveau, Paris, France, 10 December 1992 (Ballades), 20 December 1993 (Sonata)
(available singly on OPUS 111, OP30366)
Grigory Sokolov (piano)
NAÏVE OP30421 [5 CDs: 54:39 + 55:33 + 71:13 + 60:06 + 66:58]


One American critic recently described Sokolov’s playing as, “a kind of pianism, musicianship and artistry one thought had vanished forever”.

The Naïve label have compiled an impressive five disc collection of solo piano works performed by the maverick Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov. I note that the recordings have been previously released by Naïve on their Opus 111 label. I was a very late convert to the genius of Sokolov, coming across an unofficial recording of a simply awe-inspiring interpretation of the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor with the Stockholm Radio Symphony Orchestra under the Finnish conductor Tuomas Ollila. My information is that Sokolov’s performance was recorded at a BBC Proms Concert in 1995 but I am unsure if that is accurate. There are some sound problems which may provide the reason for its unavailability in the catalogues.

Grigory Lipmanovich Sokolov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1950. At seven, he was admitted to the St. Petersburg Music Academy in Leah Zelikhman’s class. Sokolov graduated from the Leningrad Conservatory giving his first public recital at the age of 12. It is now over forty years since the 16-year-old Grigory Sokolov was awarded the Gold Medal at the world famous Third Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, in Moscow, in 1966; an award granted unanimously by a jury presided over by the eminent pianist Emil Gilels. Since 1975 Sokolov has been teaching at the Conservatory and is Professor at the Special Piano-playing Department.

It was not at all surprising that Sokolov became one of Russia’s best-kept musical secrets of the 1960s and 1970s during the constraints of the Soviet political system. Only since the political thaw in the 1980s, following the demise of the Soviet regime, has Sokolov been allowed to perform outside his home country.

He has gained an almost mythical status amongst music-lovers and pianophiles throughout the world and is now considered by many to be the world’s greatest living pianist. Sokolov is said to know more about a Steinway than many piano technicians, and before he sits down to play an unfamiliar piano, he first examines its inner mechanics, taking it to pieces. He is used to studying for many hours every day, and even on the day of a concert, practises on stage for hours, “getting to know” the piano. That he prefers his CDs to be recorded live is not surprising, since he likes to capture the sacred moments of a real, live concert and avoid the sterile atmosphere of a studio.

The first and second discs of this set contain the enigmatic The Art of the Fugue which was Bach’s most grandiose fugal project and demonstrate the full extent of his technical and creative resources. Although The Art of the Fugue is commonly played on the piano, Bach gave no clue to his intended instrumentation for the incomplete score. In Sokolov’s expert hands this sequence achieves a special purity and depth of feeling that demonstrates that it is not just a theoretical treatise, not merely a tour de force but music of unaccountable power of expression.

Bach’s six movement Partita No. 2 was written especially for the harpsichord in the tradition of the then fashionable dance suite. There is a dignity and strength to Sokolov’s playing and I am unable to imagine the work being performed better. Recorded in 1982 the piano timbre sounds especially appealing in both The Art of the Fugue and the Partita No.2 in the cool, clear and well balanced acoustic of the Gramzapis Studio in St. Petersburg.

Beethoven’s C major and G major Rondo’s, Op. 51 date from 1797 and 1800 respectively and are given performances of astonishing directness by the soloist. Sokolov’s playing is full of characteristic insights and never displays any tendency to beautify the music.

From 1795 the Rondo alla ingharese quasi un capriccio is famous owing to the enigmatic inscription ‘rage over a lost penny’ placed at the head of the score. Sokolov is authoritative and expressive in this agitated music that is so rich in mockery. His playing readily evokes the image of Beethoven’s anger and then his realisation of the absurdity of loosing his temper over such a trivial matter.

The Sonata No.4 in E flat major was originally designated as a ‘Grande Sonata’ and the work is indeed on a grand scale. It is good that Sokolov has taken up this E flat major score as it is seldom played as it ends so unsensationally on a intimate tender note. Sokolov plays this affectionate warm-hearted Sonata with a true Beethovian sensibility with a natural lyricism and a sharp musical insight. Sokolov is a thoroughly sensitive Beethovenian as his playing of brooding melancholy in the slow movement so aptly demonstrates. I especially enjoyed Sokolov’s interpretation of the short third movement allegro which is like a cross between a minuet and a scherzo. His commanding playing of the menacing triplets and the mysterious eruptions in the coda is simply outstanding.

The Sonata No. 28 in A major from 1816 comes from Beethoven’s final group of five Sonatas. Beethoven indicates for the first time on a score as being intended for ‘für Hammerklavier’, thus stressing the requirement for a modern style of interpretation.

Sokolov displays real empathy with Beethoven’s spiritual concepts that are encountered in these later Sonatas and also in his last String Quartets. Sokolov’s playing of the Chameleon-like score, with its ever-changing emotions and demands, is inspirational and at times the effect is breathtaking.

All the Beethoven scores were recorded at Villa dei Cedri, Cola di Lazise, in Italy in 1991. There is a touch of shallowness to the cool recording but on the whole the sound engineers have provided a decent sound.

The 24 Préludes Op. 28 are among Chopin’s greatest achievements. They represent a roller-coaster of moods that cover a tremendous variety of feelings. For sheer emotional expression they are at the peak of all his piano works. Chopin most likely used J.S. Bach’s ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’ as a model; a set of 24 Preludes and Fugues that he admired. Not being a contrapuntalist Chopin decided on a cycle of préludes only, each in a different major and minor key. They were written to be played as a set, for the moods are all contrasting and follow each other fluidly.

Sokolov plays these highly concentrated pieces with poetry and tremendous atmosphere. I especially enjoyed Sokolov’s playing of the vigorous second prélude with its repetitive mechanistic tempo and the exquisite fourth prélude which is sweetly and languorously performed. Sokolov communicates a persuasive state of anxiety and depression in the fitful and jerky melody of the eighth prélude and the bright and vivacious eleventh prélude is striking performed. The explosive power of the sixteenth, eighteenth, twenty-second and the twenty-fourth préludes is impressively conveyed as is the atmosphere of serenity Sokolov creates in the twenty-third and twenty-ninth préludes. A well judged sound quality is achieved by the engineers.

The fifth and final CD contains Brahms’ Four Ballades Op. 10 and the Sonata No. 3 in F minor Op. 5. Sokolov builds up the drama of the first ballade entitled ‘Edward’ with tremendous power and the second ballade, which is full of contrast and is more of melodic than rhythmic, is played with considerable variety of expression. The third ballade entitled intermezzo takes the form of a scherzo and is interpreted with fine control. Sokolov is especially effective with the mysterious colour of the central trio. The extended fourth ballade, marked andante con moto, allows the pianist to be at his most contemplative, readily carrying the slower tempo with deeply sensitive playing.

The fruits of Brahms’ relative youth the Sonata No. 3 in F minor Op. 5 is a portent of his future powers. Sokolov gives a bold and immensely powerful reading of the dynamic character of the long opening movement. The andante espressivo has a tender nocturnal and lyrical nature which in these sensitive hands easily evokes a picture of two lovers during a passionate encounter. Sokolov’s portrayal of the third movement scherzo, so vitalised by discords, is outstanding and the solemn character of dark foreboding of the intermezzo is convincingly conveyed. In the tempestuous final movement Sokolov provides a thrilling performance of Olympian quality. The Ballades from 1992 and the Sonata from 1993 were recorded live at Salle Gaveau in Paris with the benefit of an outstanding sound quality.

On a personal note, if I had been assembling this five disc set I would have been looking for more diversity and in place of the Chopin I would have programmed Sokolov’s recordings of Sonatas and Preludes in a late-Romantic vein from Prokofiev, Rachmaninov and Scriabin, from his OP30386.

It is possible to detect some minor audience noise during some of these performances but there is certainly nothing to worry about. I found the sound quality across these performances to vary from the very acceptable to excellent. There is a cool and clear sound which seems to be a trademark requirement for a Sokolov recording. The concise annotation, contained in the booklets of each of the respective CD jewel cases, is interesting and informative. It is difficult to give anything other than accolades for these sterling performances. Should anyone want evidence of a true genius at work then this set provides it. An outstanding release that is highly recommended.

Michael Cookson


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