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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat major, Op. 106 Hammerklavier [52:09]
Grigory Sokolov (piano)
rec. 18-19 November 1975, Munich, Germany
SONY 88985 336072 [52:09]

Once again, within the space of six months, Sony have dug into the archives and released another 1970s recording of the Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov (b.1950). Last time it was the Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1, taped in Munich in 1977, which I had the pleasure of reviewing. This time we are treated to an account of Beethoven’s monumental Hammerklavier, a work in which the composer pushed the boundaries of the piano sonata to the limits. Its scale, emotional landscape and technical requirements are the supreme test for any pianist. Originally issued on LP, this 1975 traversal, also set down in Munich, has had a previous outing on CD in 1993 when it was issued by Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (MFCD 922).

This is an epic reading by any standards. The opening movement, aristocratic, noble and majestic, has a sense of gripping drama. Throughout, Sokolov maintains rhythmic drive, ensuring no loss of momentum. His effortless virtuosity is taken as read. A buoyant Scherzo follows. The Adagio Sostenuto must be the longest ever recorded. At almost 24 minutes, it contrasts sharply with Friedrich Gulda’s 1960s reading on Amadeo, which comes in at 13:44. Pollini (17:12) and Brendel in the 1990s (17:46) sit somewhere between. What I can say is that Sokolov’s approach is effective and works. He never lets the music sag, but allows it to unfold with an instinctive and logical sense of inevitability and direction. At times there’s a feeling of time standing still. He negotiates the final fugue with determination and authority, giving it plenty of energy, verve and vigour. The venue, not identified, is resonant and spacious, and is sympathetic in allowing the contrapuntal lines to be clearly heard.

Sokolov’s recent signing with the Yellow Label gives us the opportunity to hear his latest thoughts on the Hammerklavier. In March 2016 I reviewed his live performance from the Salzburg Festival in August 2013 (DG 4795426). Comparison of the movement timings is interesting.

  1975 Munich 2013 Salzburg
I 11:27 13:44
II 3:06 3:30
III 23:38 21:28
IV 13:33 14:02

I haven’t heard the earlier version for a while, and revisiting it to compare with the Salzburg performance was revealing. Whilst the less-coarse sound quality of the DG offering will sway some, the earlier performance reflects the playing of a 25 year old man. There’s much more passion and fire in the outer movements. In Salzburg the pianist is more considered and measured. If it’s visceral excitement and electricity you want, I would opt for the 1975 account.

I hope that Sony have more treasures from the Sokolov discography up their sleeve for future release. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Stephen Greenbank

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