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Grigory Sokolov (piano)
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

33 Variations on a Waltz by A Diabelli, Op.120 [59:49] (1)
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Etudes, Op.25 [32:13] (2)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Three Intermezzi, Op.117 [18:28] (3)
Two Rhapsodies, Op.79 [17:36] (3)
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Fantasy in C major, Op.17 [37:22] (4)
Sonata No.2 in G minor, Op.22 [25:19] (5)
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Concerto No.2 for piano and orchestra in G minor, Op.22 [24:24] (6)
Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Concerto No.1 for piano and orchestra in B flat minor, Op.23 [34:38] (6)
Grigory Sokolov (piano)
rec. live at the hall of the Leningrad Glinka State Academic Choir, 13 June 1985 (1); 13 June 1985 (2); 6 May 1987 (3); 2 June 1988 (4); live, Grand Hall of the Leningrad State Philharmonic Society, 15 March 1984 (5); live, 1966 (venue, orchestra, conductor not given) (6)
MELODIYA MELCD1002078 [4 CDs: 59:49 + 68:31 + 63:48 + 59:09]

There are many, including myself, who regard Grigory Sokolov as one of the greatest pianists of this age or of any age. Indeed, he seems to have assumed cult status. I have been a devotee for many years since my then piano teacher introduced me to his recordings in the 1990s. I was fortunate at that time to hear him twice live in concert, both in a solo recital and in a concerto performance. Alas, he no longer plays here, due to the stringent visa requirements imposed on visiting artists to the UK. Well, this is our loss.
He was born in Leningrad in 1950. He gave his first solo performance at the age of twelve. In 1973 he graduated from the Leningrad Conservatory. Seven years previously he had won first prize at the Third International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, where he played the Saint-Saëns Second Piano Concerto and the obligatory Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto. Both concertos are featured in this set in recordings he made in the studio a year later. Since that time Sokolov has shunned the studio, preferring live recordings – spontaneous events caught on the wing and not cobbled together in some editing room.
His repertoire embraces the classical and romantic, reaching as far back as Byrd, Couperin and Rameau. As an artist he is self-effacing, focusing all of his intellect and energy on the music rather than on the extraneous trappings that are part and parcel of the life of a travelling virtuoso. He is a very private person, some would even say reclusive, who declines interviews.
This 4 CD boxed-set issued by Melodiya can be enthusiastically welcomed in that it makes available several live recordings hitherto unavailable on CD, as far as I know. To put the recordings in some sort of context of previous availability, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and the Chopin Etudes Op.25 have been previously issued on CD. I first got to know them when they were issued on the Opus 111 label in the early 1990s. In 2011 they were reissued in a 10 CD box put out by Naïve entitled ‘Sokolov – Complete Recordings’, together with the rest of the Opus 111 tranche. The Tchaikovsky and Saint-Saëns concertos were issued in 1997 as part of a series of CDs dedicated to Neeme Järvi (The Early Recordings). New to CD are the Brahms and Schumann works. Certainly, having collected many live concert recordings of this pianist over the years from various sources, I have never come across these performances before.
I can forgive Sokolov the odd idiosyncrasy in the Diabelli Variations, as it is a compelling, robust version, full of insights and technically accomplished. The opening theme is a little quirky, and Variation 1 will appear to some rather on the slow side. Yet there are many good things here. I love the wit and humour of Variation X, and the capriciousness of XXVII. Variation XXIV is eloquent and lyrical with the counterpoint delineated. The same goes for the fugue (XXXII), where Sokolov teases out the polyphonic strands with clarity and definition. Variation XXXI is a heartfelt largo, expressive as Beethoven directs. Throughout, Sokolov reveals the improvisatory nature of the work, and there is an inner logic to the narrative. For me, the whole thing hangs together in a coherent way. Sound quality is excellent.
CD 2 comprises Chopin and Brahms. The Chopin Etudes are, for me , the highlight of this entire set. This is certainly the finest Op. 25 I have ever heard, and what a pity we don’t have his take on Op. 10. The first etude, nick-named ‘Aeolian Harp’ flows seamlessly, with the pianist exquisitely shaping the soprano melody over a discreet arpeggiated left hand figuration. His pedalling produces a tonal wash which suffuses the harmonic shifts. The F major (no. 3) is rhythmically energized and vital. In the E minor (no. 5), I love the way he brings out the left hand melody against the arpeggiated accompaniment in the right hand of the middle section. Nobody does it better. No. 7, one of my favourites of the set, is melancholic and mournful, yet characterized with drama and passionate intensity. The recording engineers of this live event from 1985 have captured this recital in ideal quality.
Not so for the Brahms Intermezzi selection, which are the only items in the set in less than ideal sound. The piano sounds recessed, and audience participation is a little intrusive. Strangely, the Two Rhapsodies from the same session, are in slightly better sound. Quite why this is so is anyone’s guess.
As for the Schumann disc, many will be gratified by the inclusion of the C major Fantasy, not otherwise available by this pianist on disc. It is an inspired reading full of poetic moments. He understands the structure and architecture of the work and never loses grip of the drama. His dynamic range, phrasing and tonal spectrum are unsurpassed. I must mention the fact that the third movement begins without a break from the proceeding movement. I would think that this is an editing error, as I could not imagine Sokolov playing it this way. Whatever the reason, it is a miscalculation which mars things. The Sonata which follows is an early work from 1830. In 1838 it was given a new finale by the composer, and it is a bonus to have included, at the end of the CD, an extra track containing the original. There is great passion in the reading, but it is never overstated. Sokolov contrasts the elements of the tempestuous Florestan with the spiritually reflective Eusebius. There is a little audience noise in these two Schumann offerings, recorded four years apart, but it’s acceptable.
A year after winning first prize at the Third International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, Sokolov made studio recordings in Moscow of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto and the Saint-Saëns Second. Neeme Järvi was the conductor with the USSR Symphony Orchestra. I find it rather strange that the conductor and orchestra are not acknowledged in this package, especially when Melodiya have already released these concertos in 1997 in the conductors ‘Early Recordings series’ (74321 40721).
The second Saint-Saëns Concerto is the most appealing and popular of the five, and is certainly my favourite. Sokolov’s performance captures the romantic lyricism which imbues the score. As for the Tchaikovsky ‘warhorse’, this is technically dazzling, with the pianist displaying great imagination and flair. What I particularly like about this is the absence of any grandstanding. Whilst there is passion, emotions are suitably reined in, avoiding that tasteless ‘heart on sleeve’ approach that one sometimes encounters. Järvi is a sympathetic partner, and both soloist and conductor seem attuned and of one mind. The performances are rendered in studio quality.
Despite some duplications on other labels, the Brahms and Schumann recordings are valuable additions to the pianist’s discography. Booklet notes are in English and Russian. Connoisseurs of consummate pianism will want this set of live recordings, from a pianist who has achieved cult status.
Stephen Greenbank

Masterwork Index: Tchaikovsky piano concerto 1