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Grigory Sokolov Live in Paris,
St Petersburg & Helsinki

Recital at Théatre des Champs-Elysées, 4 November 2002 naive DVD DR 2108 AV 127 [2 hours]

and on CD live from his annual tours in 1985-1992

This DVD is a wonderful opportunity to get to terms with a controversial "cult" pianist at his best. His recordings from live concerts (many of them unofficial) are sought after; see the dedicated Sokolov website. Grigory Sokolov dislikes studio recording. The Paris recital of 2002 is filmed sensitively and undistractingly by Bruno Monsaingeon, who provides a useful note about the project, and the sound quality is superb.

Sokolov prepares and perfects a single programme each season, repeating and honing it to perfection throughout his long annual touring schedule. He is clearly at his best in a large auditorium and there were reservations about his recent appearance in London's Wigmore Hall, with critics seriously at odds with one another (q.v. reviews in The Times and Seen&Heard). His manner evinces disinterest in his audience, which contributes to the polarisation of reactions.

Sokolov, whom I admired immoderately in Lucerne, plays recitals in near darkness and he gave vhis three Beethoven sonatas straight through without pause for applause or reflection - or for fidgeting and throat clearing (which might reduce the not infrequent coughing in the background)!

At home you can do likewise of course, or you may prefer, as I did, to have the scores in front of you to follow the considerable subtleties of his phrasing and articulation (nothing there in the Beethoven to worry purists, I thought) and watch the screen during repeats.

Sokolov brings hyper-sensitivity to six seemingly simple dances by the Armenian ethno-musicologist Komitas (Soghomon Soghomonian, 1865-1935) who "collected more than 3.000 folk-songs and freed Armenian musical thought from foreign influences". These, after the interval, provide an oasis of repose before the overwhelming power of Sokolov's transcendent account of Prokofiev's great war sonata, No.7 in Bb major. Here is displayed a whole lexicon of non-legato articulation, underpinned by confidence that the whole keyboard is under total control for attack from any height, without his ever needing to look down to where the hand will land, however rapid the moves. By a stroke of imagination, the obsessive precipitato toccata finale is filmed in a single held shot throughout to preserve its cumulative effect, as with the unmoving camera in the classic films of Yasujiro Ozu.

The encores restore charm and elegance with pieces by Couperin, Chopin and Bach - the last in a Siloti arrangement which suits Sokolov's refined aesthetic in interpreting popular classic miniatures (Alexander Siloti is an important, scarce remembered figure and my review of Charles F. Barber's biography Lost in the Stars: The Forgotten Musical Life of Alexander Siloti will appear during the summer in Music & Letters).

One tiny cavil; I wondered if Monsaingeon was a pianist, and verified that he is a concert violinist. For student pianists it is tantalising never to have an opportunity to study Sokolov's pedalling; that is not obviously visually arresting for non-pianists, but pedalling holds a great deal of the secrets which go to create great piano playing (some organ videos likewise ignore the performer's feet).

But no question, this is a very important DVD which deserves a place in every piano enthusiast's collection. It is a privilege to join the Parisian audience at Theatre des Champs-Elysées or, as it were, to bring Sokolov into one's own living room to savour his interpretations at leisure.

Having become familiar with Grigory Sokolov and his unique genius with this DVD, collectors will have to acquire the boxed set of Sokolov's live CD recordings from St Petersburg (1985, 1988) and Helsinki (1992)

Beethoven Diabelli Variations op.120
Schubert Sonata No.18 in G major, op.78 D 894
Sonata No.21 in B flat major, D 960
Chopin Sonata No.2 in B flat minor op.35 Etudes op.25
Scriabin Sonata No.3 in F sharp minor, op.23
Sonata No.9, op.68 Poeme satanique
Prokofiev (1891-1953) Sonata No.8 in B flat major, op.84
Rachmaninov Prelude in D major op.23 No.4

ive classique (Opus111 CE7E6 - TT 4 hrs 30 mins)

Indispensable is a term of approbation which easily becomes tarnished by over-use; it is wholly appropriate to these searching interpretations of keyboard classics.

You can take Sokolov's supreme technical skill for granted; it is put to exploration of the essence of each of these composers and their works, with scrupulous attention to the details of the scores, constant awareness of harmonic implications, and touch and rhythm always at the service of the composers' conceptions.

Listeners will have different favourites; mine perhaps were the Diabelli Variations, displaying in all their variety and vitality Beethoven's virtuosic resourcefulness in treating the little theme and raising it to undreamt of heights, and the two Schubert sonatas which make for riveting listening (and extremely quiet, attentive audiences).

The recording quality is excellent. Little more needs to be said - savour these great performances for yourselves.

Available from www.selectmusic.co.uk and www.naiveclassique.com


© Peter Grahame Woolf