Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Four Impromptus op. 90 [30:09]
Drei Klavierstücke D946 [34:58]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata in B flat major, op. 106 Hammerklavier [52:44]
Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764)
Les Tendres Plainte [3:36]
Les Tourbillons [2:24]
Les Cyclopes [3:59]
La Follette [1:53]
Les Sauvages [2:24]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Intermezzo in B flat minor op. 117 no. 2 [6:17]
Grigory Sokolov (piano)
rec. live. 12 May 2013, Warsaw (Schubert); 23 August 2013, Salzburg Festival (Beethoven and encores)
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4795426 [65:06 + 73:20]

Last year, the Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov signed an exclusive contract for the ‘yellow label’ and released a live concert from the 2008 Salzburg Festival. I was very fortunate to be able to review it. Luck has come my way again with this two-disc set. Again the pianist has chosen recordings from the Salzburg Festival, this time Beethoven, Rameau and Brahms from August 2013. We also hear some Schubert from Warsaw taped in May of the same year. In my previous review I quoted him: ‘From now on everything will be live ...’. Like that other great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, he eschews the artificiality of the studio, preferring the spontaneity of the ‘live’ concert situation.

Sokolov brings emotional restraint to the Schubert Impromptus, and what draws me to these performances is his poise and refinement. It’s an approach which is certainly attractive. Unlike Maria João Pires he doesn’t prettify these pieces or over-indulge the emotional side. Rubato, if any, is sparing, and dynamics are subtly applied. In the Impromptu in E flat, the right-hand scale passages are even and cleanly articulated. The G flat has a seductive charm, and the A flat’s middle section has power and passion. The Drei Klavierstücke D946 possess a similar spontaneity and freshness, and I’m pleased he includes the section Schubert later deleted in No. 1 in E flat minor, considering it made the piece too long. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard it done. No. 3 in C major has terrific syncopated rhythmic drive, with a more sedate contrasting middle section, eloquently delivered.

The Hammerklavier, in Sokolov’s hands, is leisurely and not as frenetically paced as some accounts I’ve heard. He avoids the barnstorming approach in favour of something more considered. It’s a noble and aristocratic reading, architecturally aware and with a sense of inevitability. The first movement is informed by heroic gesture, and the success of the performance is guaranteed by his pianistic stamina and assured technique. The fiendish octave leaps in the opening measures are clean and accurate. The Adagio sostenuto is sublime and profoundly penetrating. At 21:28, it is one of the most expansive accounts I’ve heard. To put that timing into some sort of perspective, Egon Petri’s comes in at 15:08, and Maurizio Pollini’s at 17:12. Sokolov’s slow movement is suffused with expressive beauty, arching melodic lines and an unerring sense of direction. The music never sags. In the final fugue, he unleashes titanic forces and, out of the chaotic thickets, brings clarity and logic to the contrapuntal lines. He has lived with this work for many years. As a preliminary to writing this review, I listened to a 1975 LP live recording he made. It’s a great favourite of mine, but this new recording benefits from its improved sound.

The encores begin with five pieces by Jean-Philippe Rameau. The pianist frequently programmes these delightful miniatures as encores; indeed Les Sauvages appears in the Salzburg 2008 Recital on the previous DG release. Sokolov’s Rameau has a striking directness, and he suffuses the individual pieces with an array of tonal colour. All ornamentation is articulated with pristine precision. There’s a delicacy and diaphanous quality to Sokolov’s Brahms Intermezzo, and he gives it with warmth and intimacy. The falling arpeggio figures, through the succession of tonalities, are negotiated smoothly, giving the performance exceptional appeal.

A superbly engineered disc, the piano sound is warm and sumptuous. Applause has been retained throughout.

This is incandescent playing from a charismatic player.

Stephen Greenbank

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