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J.S. Bach, Schumann: Grigory Sokolov (piano), Laeiszhalle Hamburg, 14.3.2011 (TKT)

J. S. Bach,
Italian Concerto (BWV 971)

Overture in the French Style (BWV 831)

Schumann, Humoresque B minor (op. 20)

Scherzo, Gigue, Romance and Fughetta (op. 32)

Grigory Sokolov's recitals have become annual events that have almost evolved into religious rituals. The number of faithful that flock to the concert hall increases, even though ticket prices do likewise. After devoutly listening to what invariably seems like a musical epiphany, a few listeners are exhausted and leave, while most don't stop begging for encore after encore. Sokolov typically obliges six times.

There is doubtless something disconcerting (the pun seems appropriate) about this development: culture of this caliber should not only be available to the select few who can afford it (after all, Sokolov records extremely little), and stardom tends to distract from the music itself.

But all this is forgotten the moment Sokolov touches the keys. The first half of the evening consisted of Bach's "Clavier-Uebung, Part 2." Published in 1735, the Italian Concerto and the French Overture were written for two-manual harpsichord. "Italian style" means that orchestra passages, played on the forte manual, alternate with solo passages played on the piano manual. Sometimes orchestra and solo instrument play together. This is where pianists are never very precise - when one hand plays tutti passages, the hand playing the solo part typically also increases in volume. Not so Sokolov: he not only executes the most precise trills imaginable; he was also absolutely faithful to Bach's score.

In the French Overture the complete control Sokolov has over his hands became even more obvious. An overture is really an orchestra suite - in this case, one that includes French dances. While Bach called other works of this kind for solo instrument a partita, "overture" here indicates that it is an orchestral work at heart. And Sokolov did evoke an entire orchestra: he miraculously created a synesthetic experience where the music turned into dancers you would have sworn you could actually see. In the last movement, Echo, the effect sounded as if the echo were coming from another room.

After the intermission came Schumann. As he often does, Sokolov played the two works as a unit, barely giving the audience time to applaud. "Humoresque" is a term taken from the German Romantic poet Jean Paul and must not be confused with "Scherzo" - "humor" here means mood. Schumann wrote this and the four pieces that make up op. 32 in 1838/39. Both works are much less known than others from that period, such as Arabesque, Kreisleriana, and Kinderszenen. It was a time of uncertainty for Schumann. The conflict with his future father-in-law was coming to a head. Moreover, Robert wanted to establish his musical journal in Vienna, where he also tried to find work. Both attempts were unsuccessful.

The two works are so complex, it is easy to see why Sokolov - who in one of his rare interviews said that he only plays music he loves - feels so close to them. Never aiming at a superficial impact, he brings out the various layers and moods of a work. In his hands, the piano turned into many different instruments - even a plucking string instrument. How does he do it? Maybe there are pianists who have dazzled me more with their sheer technical acrobatics; or others who have moved me more because they gave expression to easily identifiable, intense emotions. But no one has ever left a more lasting impression on me than Grigory Sokolov. He seems to go inside the music itself, opening a realm that would otherwise be forever closed. Perhaps this is one reason why he barely acknowledges applause and why he is so easily persuaded to play yet another encore: applause is as untrustworthy as words. Truth lies only in music - and in silence.

Thomas K Thornton

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