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Grigory Sokolov (piano)
rec. live, 2017-2019, various locations
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4836570 [2 CDs: 47:52 + 79:03; DVD: 139 mins]

Jessica Duchen's booklet notes throw some light on the intriguing world of the enigmatic pianist Grigory Sokolov. He rose to prominence after winning the 1966 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. After staying away from recording for a number of years, in 2014 he signed an exclusive contract with DG. He doesn’t make studio recordings where various takes are patched together, but prefers the spontaneity of the ‘live’ concert event. This year he’s turned seventy and restricts his concertizing to central Europe, due to his dislike of long flights and resultant jet lag. As an artist he’s 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 doesn’t give interviews, won’t play on a piano more than five years old, and is reluctant to announce the programmes of his recitals until near the time of the concert. He doesn’t collaborate with orchestras, claiming he doesn’t get enough rehearsal time. He no longer performs in the UK due to the stringent visa requirements, so I count myself very fortunate to have heard him twice live in concert, both in a solo recital and in a concerto performance.

Many regard Sokolov as one of the greatest pianists of our time, and he seems to have assumed a mythical status. Listening to his playing offers many rewards. First of all there's the richness and tonal beauty of his sound and the crisp and clear articulation. Whilst the virtuosic brilliance can be taken as read, there's imaginative fantasy, wide dynamic variance, mesmerizing rhythmicity and intelligent, artful musicianship.

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op.2 No.3 is certainly more tamed than some performances I’ve heard, especially those by Michelangeli. In the slow movement he’s both sober and elegant in his approach. The semiquaver passages in the finale are flawlessly smooth and polished. Each of the eleven pieces that make up the Op.119 Bagatelles is a gem. As a group they overflow with wit, sentiment and attractive melody. No.2 is my favourite, and Sokolov doesn’t disappoint, instilling it with agile grace. In fact, all of them are performed with a wealth of fantasy and invention.

Sokolov's Brahms provides the listener with some illuminating insights. The late piano pieces are an autumnal flowering of 19th-century German piano music. He’s chosen the Op.118 and 119 cycles, and captures the changing moods of each. Some of the pieces are impassioned, as Op.118, No.1 and Op.119, No.4, others are introspective as Op.118, No.2 and Op.119, No.1. Each is eloquently sculpted and well-projected, and throughout the rich textures are opened up and savoured.

It was at the Auditorium Giovani Agnelli del Lingotto, Turin on 31st May 2017 that the filmed concert on the accompanying DVD took place. Mozart and Beethoven make up the bulk of the concert and the recital ends with six encores. The Steinway technician has done a sterling job in tuning and voicing the impressive instrument used. There are a good number of intelligently placed camera angles, some focussing on the pianist's hand movements.  In the Mozart Sokolov lavishes care and attention to detail and accomplishes delicate nuance. The readings also benefit from a natural flow. However, it’s in the Beethoven that the pianist displays his true credentials. In the Op.90 great play is made of the contrast between the forceful severity of the first movement and the fluid lyricism of the second. In the opening movement of Op.111 struggle and conflict are embedded throughout. The Arietta, imbued with serene contemplation, is satisfyingly paced and rhythmically consistent. As is the norm with his recitals Sokolov is generous with his encores. They include two beautifully contoured nocturnes by Chopin and an attractive piece by Rameau, a composer close to his heart.

The performances on the two CDs derive from three live concerts, captured at Zaragoza (Spain), Wuppertal (Germany) and Rabbi (Italy). There is a variance in sound quality. The venues of Zaragoza and Wuppertal confer warmth and bloom to the sound, which the Beethoven Op.2/3 and Bagatelles benefit from. The late Brahms was recorded at the Church of San Bernardo in Rabbi, and the audio quality is slightly inferior. It has a roughness and edge to it, which takes some adjustment.

Nevertheless, for me, the performances are inspirational.

Stephen Greenbank
Beethoven, Ludwig van
Bagatelles (11), op.119
Piano Sonata no.3 in C major, op.2 no.3

Brahms, Johannes
Intermezzi (3), op.117
no.2 in B flat minor
Klavierstucke (4), op.119
Klavierstucke (6), op.118

Debussy, Claude
Préludes (12), Book 1
no.6 Des pas sur la neige

Rachmaninov, Sergei
Préludes (13), op.32
no.12 in G sharp minor

Rameau, Jean-Philippe
Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin
14. Les Sauvages
Pièces de Clavecin (24) avec une méthode pour la mécanique des doigts
Suite in E minor: 4. Le rappel des oiseaux
Pièces de clavecin en concert (5 books)

Schubert, Franz
Allegretto in C minor, D915
Impromptus (4), op.142 D935
no.2 in A flat major


Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus
Fantasia in C minor, K475
Piano Sonata no.14 in C minor, K457
Piano Sonata no.16 in C major, K545

Beethoven, Ludwig van
Piano Sonata no.27 in E minor, op.90
Piano Sonata no.32 in C minor, op.111


Schubert, Franz
Moments musicaux, op.94 D780
no.1 in C major

Chopin, Frederic
Nocturnes (21)
no.9 in B major, op.32 no.1
no.10 in A flat major, op.32 no.2

Rameau, Jean-Philippe
Fourth Concert in B flat major: L'indiscrète
Schumann, Robert
Arabeske in C major, op.18

Debussy, Claude
Preludes (12), Book 2
no.10 Canope

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