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MAINLY PIANISTS and PIANOS in January (Wigmore and Royal Festival Halls)

Grigory Sokolov Wigmore Hall 17 January
Bach, J S Partita No. 6 in E minor, BWV. 830
Bach, J S Chaconne in D minor arr for the left hand
Beethoven Piano Sonata in B flat, Op. 22, No. 11
Beethoven Piano Sonata in C minor, Op. 111, No. 32

Beethoven & his Pianos British Museum 18 January
Robert Levin, William Drabkin & members of OAE

Severin von Eckardstein Wigmore Hall 21 January
Beethoven Piano Sonata in E minor, Op. 90
Schumann Fantasy in C, Op. 17
Messiaen Le courlis cendré from 'Catalogue d'oiseaux'
Prokofiev Piano Sonata No. 8 in B flat, Op. 84

Jean Philippe Collard QEH 22 January
Schumann, Rachmaninoff etc

Philharmonia RFH 20 January 7.30
Jiří Bělohlávek - conductor; Zoltan Kocsis - piano
JANÁČEK Sinfonietta
MOZART Piano Concerto No. 23, K488
DVOŘÁK Symphony No. 9, From the New World

Shlomy Dobrinksy & Mei Yi Foo RFH 20 January 2004 6.00
FRANCK Sonata; PROKOFIEV Sonata No. 2

Bach & Beethoven - two composers, two concerts in one evening! Grigory Sokolov's disconcerting approach to his audiences was evident again in London. In Lucerne Sokolov confused listeners by played several Haydn sonatas straight through in the dark without any breaks for applause. At Wigmore Hall he followed his own arrangement of Bach's Partita No 6 with Brahms' left hand version of the famous violin Chaconne in similar fashion, stifling applause which had begun to break out after half an hour of music whilst he stayed sitting at the piano. Nor did he rise from his stool between Beethoven's Op 22 & 111, though there had been no request that there no appreciation should be shown until the interval. I say 'his arrangement' of the Bach, because the sparcity of firm instruction, which encourages a free-for-all of interpretations. Sokolov was sometimes solid and forthright - the gigue of No 6 is uncommonly serious - was whimsical and improvisational, consistent only in a generally forward moving urge well suited to the corrente.

I was, as so often before, given to wonder again why half this great and versatile pianist's recital was given over to Bach on a Steinway, or to Bach re-invented? He did not seem to have anything special or coherent to say in this music. It was romantic, with build-ups of crescendi, as if an organist was using (anachronistically) a swell box; the audience seemed to have loved it, which must be the main thing. I should have been more sympathetic and interested if Sokolov had opted for historic Bach arrangements, perhaps some of Busoni's or Siloti's; an area explored so fruitfully explored by Angela Hewitt.

From my point of view, Beethoven allowed more scope and I was very satisfied with his account of two sonatas, Op 22, one of the more virtuosic early ones, and Op 111, the last of all. It was a long evening, and I was surprised that he went on to give redundant encores of 18 C French pieces. Sokolov is a famous 'cult' pianist, with admirers for whom he can do no wrong. For a measured assessment, see Hilary Finch's perceptive review in The Times. Better still, acquire the recently released DVD of Grigory Sokolov on top form Live in Paris, which I shall review fully in due course (naive AV 127).

Sokolov's puzzling recital was very much in mind at the British Museum next morning, 18 January, for an OAE seminar on Beethoven and his Pianos, which has continued to colour my reaction to several pianists heard in quick succession in the following week. William Drabkin introduced us to the earliest examples of Beethoven's concerto writing with recorded illustrations. Of central interest was The development of the piano in Beethoven's time, a brilliant exposition by Robert Levin illustrated on two instruments from his own collection. A tremendous communicator in talk and performance, Levin makes a persuasive case for restored period instruments for the concertos instead of the "9 ft behomoth, black with its lid up, behind which the wind can't hear and participate in dialogue". Those iron framed modern instruments are strung with such tension that "it can take a whole second to develop the side-to-side vibration which gives 'singing tone' ". Early pianos, with parallel strings and small hammers set up 'backwards' are by contrast more focused and instantly responsive. He illustrated how Beethoven's music was 'uncannily written for those instruments', exploiting all their characteristics in ways no one could imagine. He described the 'explosive development of pianos in Beethoven's lifetime' and how he was always seeking more and exploiting given instruments to their limit, taking command of the entire range of his pianos, wanting ever more range and power, with 'a visionary sense of sound despite his deafness'.

After lunch Levin rehearsed and performed Beethoven's piano/wind quintet on a restored Viennese instrument from 1802, with members of OAE all playing early instruments, their balance in this chamber grouping being acceptable. However, as Bayan Northcott writes, reviewing Levin's account of two Beethoven concertos at QEH, there remains "the need to adjust to the modest volume of the fortepiano relative to the weight of even a period-instrument orchestra". In broadcasts and recordings that necessary adjustment falsifies the actual balance as experienced live; the debate and arguments will continue for ever!

Severin von Eckardstein's recital at Wigmore Hall confirmed how well earned was the accolade of his Belgian triumph at the Queen Elisabeth Competition. Thoughtful negotiation of the transistions in Beethoven's Op 90, with a Schubertian song-style for ints second movement; 'fantastical and passionate' in Schumann's Fantasie, warm and sonorous for its sustained finale; Messiaen's curlew haunting and all the birds around it characterised with exquisite precision of voicing in their coruscating figurations; Prokofiev's grandiloquent No 8 given breadth and power, and all well judged for the acoustics of the hall - a pianist who listens as he plays. The enclore just right, a simple melody of Grieg to wind down. Catch his next appearance and meanwhile his recordings of Prokofiev's 2nd, the most demanding of his concertos, and that same Beethoven sonata (Cypres CYP9616).

I had two worrying experiences of hearing famous pianists in mid-career; both seemed affected by the routine of the virtuoso's lifestyle and there was a feeling of playing on auto-pilot? Jean Philippe Collard seemed ill at ease on 22 January despatching a programme of Schumann followed by some unremarkable early pieces by Debussy & Rachmaninoff ("the" Prelude) with harsh tone and superficial brilliance. Twice I retreated further back from my allocated press seat, to little benefit; one of those occasions which makes me sometimes hate Steinways!

Zoltan Kocsis brought to my ears no special flair nor individual interest to his well-turned account of Mozart's K 488 in A at RFH, sandwiched for no obvious or good reason between memorably satisfying performances of the Janacek Sinfonietta and Dvorak's New World symphony; programming by committee? (I had a similar feeling about his Naive Classique DVD DR 2100 AV 103 : " - a super-efficient performance by Kocsis of music he had played so many times that there was little left to feel or express during the performance itself ".)

Earlier the same evening, greater pleasure was to be had from two young players in a Total Talent hour of chamber music, which was attended by a large audience, nearly filling the RFH stalls. These free pre-concert recitals before main Philharmonia concerts are a great success. Shlomy Dobrinksy (violin) and Mei Yi Foo are a well prepared and attuned duo who gave excellent, fresh performances of the Franck violin sonata and Prokofiev's No 2 in its violin version. His tone was consistently beautiful throughout and they are clearly both musicians with futures, separately and together.