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Grigory Sokolov – piano
Barbican Hall, London 16 May 2006

Bach - French Suite No 5 in B minor
Beethoven – Piano Sonata in D minor Op 31 No 2 (Tempest)
Schumann – Piano Sonata in F# minor No 1 Op 11
Encores: Chopin; Bach/Siloti & Bach/Busoni

Over four years of hearing Sokolov, his fame in London has clearly spread. From playing to a half-empty QEH, he now almost fills the Barbican Hall. Astonished comments from critics and audiences have now re-emerged within his biography in the programme – to the effect that he plays with a unique poetry and naturalness, with such good technique that he needs little pedal to make the piano sing in an unparalleled range of sonorities and colours, above all that many consider him the greatest living pianist.

All this is true. No-one today plays like Sokolov, with such a sense that every piece is improvised, open to infinite meanings – of which he spontaneously happens to give us just one in that concert. Sokolov is a Romantic pianist in the philosophical sense; that is, he believes that Art is the alchemy of the soul; it is the means by which we, as human beings, can gain a glimpse of the beyond. Where other pianists strive to immerse themselves in a style, to be completely idiomatic or historically correct, Sokolov is always already in that ‘beyond,' his is playing that transcends its context. Analysis, that in most cases illuminates a performance, merely cheapens Sokolov's; the critic should not carp, but proselytise. In case it is not obvious, one should add that Sokolov has a giant technique, so that the music is always able to speak untrammelled by any sense of apparent effort. Nor does he play a niche repertoire; in his last three London recitals, he did not play a single composer twice.

Despite this eulogy, this was the least overwhelming of those four recitals – though Sokolov set himself a real musical challenge, representing each composer by works hard to bring off. His Bach typically began in medias res, as if in the middle of a meditation; the opening Allemande was ravishing in its emotional freedom, the Sarabande meditative, but without a hint of pomposity. But there was the occasional slip in the Courante, and the final Gigue was not as convincing as the rest of the suite. Likewise, although Beethoven's Tempest had a deep sense of inner structure, and each voice was given the most theatrical characterisation, the outer movements were surprisingly cautious, the long adagio at times fell into prose. Nor did Sokolov entirely justify the rambling length of Schumann's first movement.

Great pianists make the best possible case for indifferent works, however. From the Schumann sonata's scherzo, it was as if Sokolov took the music by the scruff of its neck, forced us to listen to its passion and forget its creaking construction. During the burlesque second trio, yes, we did imagine that the piano had become an orchestra; in the repeated big climaxes of the finale, we did wait for each next moment of bombast with bated breath.

By the (six) encores, four Chopins including the first and fantasy impromptu, the Bach-Siloti B minor prelude and the Bach-Busoni chorale prelude ‘Ich ruf zu dit, jesu Christ,' the hall was spellbound, begging for more. The sense of spontaneity, that gives Sokolov's Bach such imagination, is of course ideal for Chopin. The mystery is that Sokolov conveys this openness without indiscipline or self-indulgence.

I did learn from the biography that Emil Gilels was an early champion of Sokolov's. This is quite understandable. If one were to make any comparisons with another pianist, it would be that in Sokolov there lives on the spirit of Gilels.

Ying Chang