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