Grigory Sokolov - Live in Paris

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Piano Sonatas: No. 9 in E, Op. 14/1 (1798) [15:00]; No. 10 in G, Op. 14/2 (1799) [15:30]; No. 15 in D, Op. 28, “Pastorale” (1801) [29:09]
KOMITAS (1869-1935) Six Dances [21:53]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953) Piano Sonata No. 7 in B flat, Op. 83 (1942) [21:29].
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849) Mazurkas – C sharp minor, Op. 63/3 [3:23]; F minor, Op. 68/4 [4:40].
François COUPERIN (1668-1733) Le Tic-Toc Choc ou Les Maillotins [3:21]. Soeur Monique [4:01]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) Prelude in B minor (after BWV855a, arr. Siloti) [2:49]
Grigory Sokolov (piano)
rec. live, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, 4 November 2002
MEDICI ARTS 3073888 [123:02]

This is a rare opportunity to savour the art of Grigory Sokolov, that most reclusive of pianists. A Barbican recital in May 2006 furnished the only opportunity I personally have had of hearing him – and what a revelation it was, too.

The trio of Beethoven Sonatas is perfectly chosen: the Op. 14 set complements the Op. 28 perfectly. How many amateur pianists, I wonder, have slaved over the E-Major from Op. 14, aiming at full evenness in the interlocking third semiquavers in the first movement and, like myself, failed miserably – at least in comparison to Sokolov. There is an element of rescuing these sonatas from an undeserved reputation as teaching pieces so that they can take their rightful place as a part of the canon. Sokolov lavishes much love on the first movement of the E-Major. The central Allegretto movement of the sonata is no mere dashed-off interlude. It, too, has care upon care heaped upon it, to revelatory effect. Note the way Sokolov links the two-octave leaps between the “E”s in a miraculous way, or the way his scales are things of pearly, even beauty in the finale. The second sonata of the pair, the G-Major, here holds a first movement of the utmost burnished lyricism. Bruno Monsaingeon's camera angles, fully entwined with the music itself, and Sokolov's beloved low lighting highlight the sense of intimacy here. Sokolov's touch in the central movement of the G-Major is infinitely varied, his depth of sound entirely in keeping with his conception and used to contrast with the most fantastical staccatos. Sokolov now takes my first recommendation in these pieces - previously reserved for Backhaus.

The serenity of Beethovenian D-Major pervades the first movement of Sokolov's “Pastorale” sonata. The Andante is a lesson in fine piano technique, with the wonderfully legato right hand against perfectly judged left hand staccati resulting in a magnificent Beethoven processional. Musicality is all here – it is only in retrospect that one allows oneself the time to gawp at Sokolov's even left hand in the third movement. At the time, one is completely engrossed in Beethoven's fascinating musical surface. And that, surely, is how it should be. The finale is slower than most – more a recollection of shepherds piping than the pipes themselves. Ashkenazy in his early Decca account was most definitely in the opposing latter camp, for example. The coda is stunning, and, for once, not a mad romp to the finishing line.

The cheers that greet Sokolov after the final Beethoven Sonata are more those that one would associate with end of recital delirium. Quite rightly, though. This is Beethoven playing of the very first rank. Every note, every phrase is to be cherished. Not only that, Sokolov's realisation of and delineation of musical structure is exemplary and he is one of the few musicians that can marry that to exquisite surface detail.

The three Beethoven Sonatas provided the first half of the recital and were given without a break for applause. The second part opened with the Komitas Dances, an idiosyncratic choice in which Sokolov fully presented the inherent melancholy of these pieces from Armenia. Close-up shots of Sokolov's face show his clear involvement and concentration. The piano is perfectly tuned – the overall result is mesmerising.

For the Prokofiev Seventh Sonata, it is Pollini who has for long held my affections (DG). Sokolov matches Pollini in animalistic, elemental ferocity but includes more moments of bitter-sweet lyricism. Again, this reading goes to the top of my tree. Sokolov's mastery of staccato comes into its own here. Note also how Monsaingeon's use of a distant camera can emphasise the loneliness of this music's slower portions. The intensity of the slow movement's climax is monumental. If Sokolov does not quite equal Polini's cumulative effect in the finale, it is a close thing indeed. The standing ovation is no surprise – neither is the quantity and quality of the encores. The Chopin Mazurkas actually sandwich the Couperin items. Sokolov's Chopin is twilit magic, his Couperin a ray of adroitly-turned daylight. The final encore is a Bach/Siloti Prelude. Sokolov's articulation is perfectly clean, but it is the serenity that makes the performance glow that is most memorable. The perfect way to end.

Colin Clarke

A rare opportunity to savour the art of Grigory Sokolov, that most reclusive of pianists.