What defines the mass following around Grigory Sokolov? For North Americans, part of the answer is in the pianist’s self-imposed isolation in Europe. Even when he refused to allow recordings to be released officially, old records plus plenty of YouTube videos gave a glimpse into a kind of piano playing rarely heard.
I had the good fortune to see Sokolov in recital in 2011. I was in Europe for a piano festival, followed by 2 weeks of backpacking on my own. I visited Cologne just to hear him perform Schumann and Bach (plus many encores) and it was well worth it. I still hear the perfect vocal right hand and pizzicato left hand of the slow movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto.
One reviewer has attempted to define the mystical quality behind Sokolov’s brilliance. He says that Sokolov sounds “at home” with each composer he plays, a sentiment I agree with.
And then one more statement I do agree with: “Sokolov’s first concern is always his relationship with his instrument.” He is first and foremost a pianist, in the best sense possible. He knows how to express music through the piano.
It’s well known that Sokolov doesn’t collaborate, whether in chamber music or concertos, at least not anymore. He’s often said that it’s too difficult to find a musical partner with similar musical sounds, not to mention, the economics of rehearsing an orchestra long enough to have a unified musical message.
So he plays solo, exclusively touring Europe with one program each year. Clearly he gets to know his program so well that once he’s performing publicly, he knows exactly how to make his music heard perfectly.
But that requires the perfect instrument. Sokolov is also known for working as his own piano technician. Spending hours alone in the concert hall before a recital, he will adjust the piano so that it responds exactly as he would like it to.
That might sound like ‘cheating’, manipulating the playing field so that he’s always playing with home-field advantage. But if you make that much effort not just to understand the technical work of adjusting piano mechanisms, but to know exactly what you want out of an instrument, why not utilize it?
So he’s truly someone engaged with what a piano is capable of musically, chooses a program which engages the piano best, and masters the small repertoire to create incredibly moving performances. To go a step further, all of his commercial recordings are live, unedited recordings. I don’t know if he’s ever stepped foot into a studio or had an audience hear a recording of his playing that was spliced together from multiple takes.
It was difficult to decide what recording to focus on, but I decided to look at Chopin’s 2nd Sonata, Op. 35. Chopin, being a pianist’s composer, and Sokolov, being a pianist’s pianist, sounds like the perfect combination.
Chopin of course took ample inspiration from the world of Italian bel canto opera, and wrote in such a way to best approximate the singing style on the least-singing instrument. The best Chopin singers surpass the piano’s percussive nature to create the impression of singing legato with the requisite balance of phrasing, dynamics and rubato. I’d like to suggest that Sokolov is uniquely qualified to find this balance because of his total engagement in the piano as an instrument.
Of course he sings throughout the first movement. The left hand is not overwhelming in the opening agitato theme and his nocturne impulses shine in the secondary theme. The second movement is as playful as the music allows, making the most of the changes of register, and the motivic repeated notes are never hammered. In the famous third movement he acquires the necessary bleak character, and even manages to make the piano sob at the sforzandos, or the left hand trills in the march section. He makes sense of the strange finale by adding color with the pedal and draws our ears closer by alluding to motives in his voicing.
I’d like to look most specifically at one spot in the Development section of the first movement, M. 137-153, heard at 5:24 of his recording. Here the agitato theme in the right hand is combined with the opening descending sixth octaves in the left hand. If you listen closely, there’s a slight hesitation in the right hand to give a moment longer to listen to the left hand. In that way, the left hand sounds full in tone because the sound has a moment to bloom, and we get to listen to the combination of the two themes.
Without that regular hesitation, the piano would sound completely homogenous, instead of heterogenous. Sokolov understands and hears how the sounds he makes at the piano will be perceived at his attack, and exactly how it will decay, and he manages every other musical decision around those basic realities. And because he works so closely with his instrument at each performance, he is able to guarantee the response that he wants. In this way, Sokolov ismuch unlike Glenn Gould who prized structure over the sound.