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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No.23 in A major K488 [27:47]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor [43:56]
Grigory Sokolov (piano)
Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Trevor Pinnock (Mozart)
BBC Philharmonic/Yan Pascal Tortelier (Rachmaninov)
rec. live, Mozarteum, Salzburg, 30 January 2005 (Mozart); Royal Albert Hall, London, 27 July 1995 (Rachmaninov)
DVD: Grigory Sokolov – A Conversation That Never Was. A film by Nadia Zhdanova [58’52]
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 7015 [71:43 + DVD: 58:52]

The phenomenon that is Grigory Sokolov really does take the breath away. There isn’t a pianist quite like him performing today, and as infuriating as it is to have to listen to some of his most astonishing concerto performances from underground broadcasts that can never do the work, or him, justice it’s a small price worth paying when the music-making is just in a class of its own. (Has any pianist, except perhaps Sokolov’s musical hero, Emil Gilels, made Saint-SaŽns’ Second Piano Concerto sound more engaging and brilliant?) Notoriously reluctant to do interviews (and, as Nadia Zhdanova’s hour-long film on the DVD reveals, equally suspicious of “recollections” and remembered conversations) he can be enigmatic to the point of not even existing. Avoiding the recording studio, refusing to play concertos at this late stage of his career - his demands on rehearsals are all but impossible for orchestras to meet - and sometimes rehearsing to such an extent he won’t decide what piano to play in recital until an hour before the concert, are idiosyncrasies as individual and unique to him as his pianism is exceptional and awe-inspiring. Sokolov has become the great anti-performer of our time. The Proms Rachmaninov Third is one of five I’m aware of – others being with the Moscow State Conservatory with Dmitri Kitajenko (an early, 1978 performance), Stockholm Radio Symphony Orchestra under Toumas Ollila (Feb. 1998), the Mariinsky (Kirov) Orchestra with Valery Gergiev (July 1989) and the Leningrad Symphonic Orchestra under Victor Dubrovsky. All are of exceptional quality, though the Proms and Leningrad performances really do set the bar so very high in this work.

Listening to this performance of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto – which is, to put it simply, one of the most hair-raising ever to appear on disc – conjures up a stream of allusions. One moment one thinks of this as a slow burning fire that ignites from almost nothing, sometimes seeming to choke under the weight of an opening movement that for half its span seem just a tad suffocating, until it roars with uncontrollable rage and heat in a cadenza that is just blistering. The Intermezzo is so poetically done – I actually can’t think of a better performance of this movement – that Sokolov is like the blacksmith Vulcan crafting notes of iron-clad beauty out of the fire fanning through those mercurial hands. This is steely beauty rather than lyrical beauty and all the better for it. By the final movement the intensity of the playing conjures up a molten cascade of notes flowing with unrelenting power as if Sokolov is a modern-day Hephaestus ripping down the Phlegethon with a tidal surge behind him. He seems like Shadrach walking through the flames of his own musical immolation and coming out unscathed at the other end. Except the illusion here is of a pianist scarred by a truly unique performance. That Sokolov emerges from this most fiery of Rachmaninov Thirds with his tailcoat burnt at the edges and his fingers a little singed makes the performance all the more human - and just brimming with humanity. Like Schnabel or Sonoda, inspirational pianists whose technique often challenged their artistic vision, I can more than live with a performance of this work that isn’t technically perfect. It really isn’t a surprise at all that by the end of the concerto the instrument itself is out of tune – the way Sokolov crushes the keyboard with his fists and batters the piano into submission is just staggering, though by no means unique. Excerpts in the DVD of him playing Rachmaninov’s Third in 1984 with the Leningrad Philharmonic Academic Symphony Orchestra with Fuat Mansurov are just as blistering. Indeed, the cadenza in that 1984 performance is of even more stunning precision and breath-taking poetry than the one on DG’s release here.

I totally realise that Sokolov is not everyone’s cup of tea when it comes to great pianism. His fanatical following can sometimes obscure a very deliberate and unorthodox approach to interpreting music. Since the ground-breaking recordings of the Rachmaninov concertos by Stephen Hough (review) we have come to listen to them with new ears. Sokolov isn’t ground-breaking; his performances of this concerto have always tended towards the heroic and reactionary. Sokolov is over six minutes longer than Hough, though time is a meaningless judge. There are times he is very fast; others where he is very slow. What he gives us is Sokolov’s Rachmaninov, often with deft touches that no-one else can create. Listen at 11’40” in the last movement of the Rachmaninov and you are aware of Sokolov’s fingers bear-hugging the keys of the piano – but here is a pianist who just isn’t afraid to let every note be heard for its true value either. You never get eliding or obfuscation of the notes with Sokolov, which is partly what makes hearing him so thrilling, and a Sokolov performance one of enormous technical and musical clarity; but at the opposite end of the spectrum, he often pays scant regard to what the composer wrote on paper. The first half of the opening movement of the Rachmaninov burns slowly at a somewhat monumental tempo but absolutely explodes at 8’23” and the finger-work has such crystalline clarity as well. And that cadenza (which begins at 10’35”)! The rapid delivery of those typically full-bodied chords, the ascending arpeggio’s in D major are so quicksilver in Sokolov’s hands. If his Intermezzo plays to Rachmaninov’s melancholic lyricism, it also has brilliant octaves thundered out on the keyboard in a tidal wave of sound. If any pianist plays the opening of the third movement with more technical assurance I have yet to hear it (though the Leningrad Third is even more dazzling). The BBC Philharmonic, under Yan Pascal Tortelier, are wonderfully in tune with the Sokolov’s epic conception of this concerto.

Mozart’s Concerto No.23 in A, K.488 is an equally mesmerising performance, though in almost every respect it differs from the heroic approach Sokolov brings to the Rachmaninov. It’s rare to hear Mozart played with such refinement as it is here in Salzburg. For one thing he keyboard touch is almost feline, though still very apparent is the sense that you can hear every note Mozart wrote for the instrument in a performance that just shimmers like tropical pond water. Its beauties are as if refracted through a prism. There are no technical issues whatsoever with this performance, just a silken thread-like lightness of touch that holds the entire structure together. Indeed, the Adagio is played as if suspended in water; it’s exotic as well as scintillating and manages to be both profound and simple simultaneously.

Zhdanova’s film of the composer is something of a paradox, to be honest. Subtitled “A conversation that never was” it’s almost like a portrait without a subject, relying exclusively on second-hand remembrances of the great pianist. Sokolov himself is suspicious of such things, believing that memory is fallible. I don’t think this should necessarily discredit the biography of Sokolov that we have in this film, but it remains an incomplete picture of the pianist seen through the eyes of others rather than from his own perspective. It probably comes as no surprise that Sokolov is obsessive – his music-making has always suggested this. He collected butterflies, made model aeroplanes and became so familiar with bus and rail timetables, and their routes, that he was often asked for directions in cities he visited. His dislike of both being photographed and filmed is covered in some detail: in the case of photography, his preference was always to be photographed from behind, something which added to the sense of enigma surrounding him. His dislike of film is believed to stem from some early examples from his career where he was filmed removed almost entirely from the context of his performances. A short excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, for example, shows the pianist alone and isolated – no orchestra or conductor are visible whatsoever. For Sokolov context is everything, and where there is no context it becomes meaningless.

Much is made of the 1966 International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, which Sokolov won, but his triumph was not without controversy. It’s suggested this was a formative influence on his subsequent career – and, indeed, a lesser artist would have been destroyed by the experience of it. Almost no film exists of Sokolov’s performance in Moscow in 1966 – just a brief extract from Liszt’s La Campanella. Widely seen an outsider, he simply wasn’t filmed at the competition at all. The jury unanimously awarded Sokolov the first prize, largely because of the intervention of that year’s head-of-the-jury, Gilels – but the audience reacted with almost hysterical abuse towards both Sokolov and Gilels, preferring the American pianist Misha Dichter. History, as posterity often does, proved Sokolov’s win to have been the correct result.

Grigory Sokolov is always a mesmerising pianist in his own right – almost nothing I have heard from him has been other than revelatory. If there are any influences on his playing, the names of Rachmaninov, Gilels, Rubenstein and Solomon stand above all others. If his performance of the Mozart concerto on these discs recalls Gilels and Solomon, then it is Rachmaninov alone who stands as the only point of comparison, or reference, in the Rachmaninov concerto. This is a fabulous and absolutely essential release that demands to be heard.

Marc Bridle



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