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Schubert & Scriabin

Schubert Sonata in C minor, D958

Prelude and Nocturne, Op.9
Piano Sonata No.3 in F sharp minor, Op.23
Deux poèmes, Op.69
Piano Sonata No.10, Op.70
Vers la flamme, Op.72

Grigory Sokolov (piano)

Wigmore Hall, June 6th, 2007

What makes Sokolov special? The short answer is very easy – no other pianist remotely approaches him for consistent spontaneity, imagination and improvisatory qualities. No-one is ever so much at the heart of the music.

Great pianists often play with a ‘rightness’ for the repertoire, an inevitability of interpretation. One thinks of the young Pollini in Chopin, or Brendel in some of the “Viennese classics” repertoire.

Sokolov, by contrast, is always showing the audience a window on infinite possibility. The piece of music displays ever more numerous facets, becomes a whole world, much in the way a Donne poem does. This is true as a general description, though it does no justice to Sokolov’s quicksilver changes of phrasing and dynamics. So the long answer to Sokolov’s specialness relates to the openness of his playing, the sense he gives us that this music allows a thousand different readings, that it holds a limitless interest. Again, as we could expect to see a thousand productions of a Shakespeare play, all different, all valid.

Sokolov’s Schubert D958 was mainstream – the first movement big and muscular, the second profound, the third lyrical, and the whole strongly Beethovenian in influence, notably in the frequent use of subito piano. The last movement, however, was contentious; the first time that I have felt that with Sokolov. Taken at a painfully slow speed, he emphasised wit and humour at the expense of the demonic momentum that usually drives performances.

Bold, but it did not quite work, especially not in the second episode, where the writing needs the leaps and the semitone melismata to provide forward movement. There was also an unintentional contradiction in the programme notes, inevitable whenever artist and writer are not connected (or even the same person.) Misha Donat wrote, reasonably enough, of the movement’s speed and energy; Sokolov played it in quite a different way.

Sokolov’s Scriabin emphasised wholeness; the work for left-hand had the fullness of ten fingers, Vers la Flamme a powerful unity. Whether in the meat of the third sonata, or in the ephemeral insights of the Poemes, Sokolov at all times showed us Scriabin’s powerfully transcendental vision; it was music, like Sokolov’s own playing, always aspiring to the beyond.
I have not heard Sokolov play the same programme in two separate concerts.

It would be interesting to do so, and hear if his spontaneity is a perfect sleight of hand, the apotheosis the ultimate ars est celare artem. Rather like going to hear a polished stand-up comedian two nights in a row, and realising that it is a perfectly studied act all along. Or whether, as one would hope, the second recital’s interpretations would be quite different. Those who have followed Sokolov around suggested it would be the latter, but not reliably so, as if he caught his muse more or less successfully at the start of the evening, and it would set the tone for how special or not the whole concert would be. (Maybe there will be a CD of a different recital in this year's tour?)

Compared to Sokolov’s own superhuman standards, this was, as other Sokolov aficionados standing about felt, something off an off-night, though it was still worlds apart from what most pianists can do. Among the traditionally numerous encores, Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu illustrated this; the outer sections were ravishing in their technical brilliance, in the unusual clarity and gradation of the bass counter-melodies, but the middle was stereotypically Russian-Chopin; over sentimental and heart-on-sleeve. Still, even Homer nods.

Ying Chang