Sokolov – The Salzburg Recital [TrackList follows] = Works of MOZART, CHOPIN, SCRIABIN, BACH, RAMEAU – DGG (2 CDs)

Sokolov – The Salzburg Recital = MOZART: Piano Sonata in F Major, K. 280; Piano Sonata in F Major, K. 332; CHOPIN: 24 Preludes, Op. 28; Mazurka in A Minor, Op. 68, No. 2; SCRIABIN: Deux Poemes, Op. 69; BACH: Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 639; RAMEAU: Les Sauvages – DGG 00289 479 4342 (2 CDs), 48:58, 60:04 (2/24/15) [Distr. by Universal] ****:  

Grigory Sokolov (b. 1950) was born in Leningrad, giving his first solo performance at the age of twelve. In 1973 he graduated from the Leningrad Conservatory. Seven years previously he had won first prize at the Third International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, where he played the Saint-Saëns Second Piano Concerto – which he recorded with Neeme Jarvi – and the obligatory Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto. One of the best contemporary representatives of the St. Petersburg piano school, Grigory Sokolov retains a cult following in Russia and beyond. A master of the old-school, “intellectual” pianism, Sokolov prefers live concerts to studio work. Most of his recordings have been made in concert.

Sokolov’s repertoire embraces the classical and romantic, reaching as far back as Byrd, Couperin and Rameau. A self-effacing artist, he focuses all of his intellect and energy on the music rather than upon the ego games of an international travelling virtuoso. He remains a private person, some would even say reclusive, who declines interviews. One of the better collections of his recorded work appeared c. 2002 on the Naïve label Op. 111, a 5-CD set that contains music from Beethoven, Schubert, Scriabin, Chopin, Prokofiev, and Rachmaninov.

Sokolov appears at the Salzburg Festival on 30 July 2008, beginning with two Mozart sonatas in the same key of F Major. The first, from Mozart’s Paris excursion in 1775, has Sokolov’s enunciating a boldly forthright theme in triple meter, Allegro assai, which evolves as an aggressive minuet. The trills assume a galant character, and Sokolov’s pearly rendition of the second subject infuses a pre-Romantic sensibility on the whole, which becomes large with the inclusion of repeats. The central heart of the work, the expansive Adagio, projects a melancholy siciliano in F Minor, a lament in the empfindsamkeit style of the Bach sons. The move to a lyrical A-flat Major episode becomes intimately touching, although it retains the essential resignation of the moment. Sokolov brings a spry, sly humor to the 3/8 Presto, a flighty dance in the rustic mode of Haydn, eminently pianistic. The registers of the keyboard dance and scurry in competitive registers, often in a manner that suggests someone had wound a music-box a bit too tightly.

The F Major Sonata, K. 332 (1783) belongs, appropriately, to Mozart’s Salzburg period. The first movement’s five themes include a dark transition into D Minor, infusing the Allegro with a drama that Beethoven would further evolve. Sokolov delivers a haunted rendition, rife with ominous undercurrents, especially since the movement lacks “development” as such and proffers a new tune, as though the Baroque practice of Scarlatti were operative. Sokolov’s distinct clarity of the musical line projects an alertness to the proceedings that arrests us throughout. The Adagio consists of a binary form, whose alternations of major and minor extend the sensibilities of the first movement while permitting any number of embellishments as the performer may improvise. The Alberti-bass formula – say, as practiced by Galuppi – itself seems to experience a revaluation for its lyrico-dramatic capacities, especially under Sokolov’s studied account. Propelled sixteenth notes cascade and dance in the final Allegro assai, an emotional, girthy, sonata-form movement that exploits much of the stile brise, or broken-style of pregnant pauses. When Sokolov decides that Mozart wants to display a bravura sensibility, who can deny him?

The set of Chopin Preludes has become common fare among piano virtuosos lately, each contributing his own notion of bravura and poetry. Leisurely and expansively, Sokolov performs with the voluptuous clarity we recall from Ivan Moravec. From the C Major Prelude, we enter a sacred space, and already the G Major rings with elevated radiance. The graduated diminuendo in the E Minor casts a lonely glow, given the piece’s innate melancholy. The D Major emerges as a knotty metrics etude. Sokolov makes the case that the B Minor – not merely the D-flat Major – deserves the epithet “raindrop” for a nocturne of resonant beauty.

The F-sharp Minor and E Major combine into a seamless diptych, one a grand etude and the latter a noble dirge. Sokolov breaks up the arpeggios in the C-sharp Minor to create a novel, water effect that carries over to the B Major. A potent mazurka, the G-sharp Minor explodes with national urgency. Some will find in the limpid F-sharp Major touches all the studied poetry required for a lifetime. The dark triplets of No. 14 in E-flat Minor convey a Gothic romance of fearsome power. The subtleties of the Raindrop gain expansive power in its contrasting sections, having moved from dreamy D-flat to C-sharp Minor, where the repeated A-flat enharmonically rises to G-sharp. From Sokolov, this popular prelude has presaged, like the earlier A Minor, gripping moments in Mussorgsky. Six bold chords announce the B-flat Minor, the notorious monster for the left hand. To call Sokolov’s rendition of the explosive runs “manic” posits an understatement. My own favorite, the A-flat Major, calls for overlaps in the hands, proffering a mixed emotion of serenity and trepidation of its inexorable loss. The stark clarity in Sokolov’s  patina almost sounds as if Pollini were at the keyboard, in a fanciful mood.

Darkness descends once more in the F Minor’s direful, cascading runs. The E-flat Major, a devilish combination of giant stretches and innate poetic rapture, proffers an etude that Sokolov makes light. Attacca, Sokolov enters the dungeon in C Minor, a series of funereal bells in variegated dynamics. Sokolov’s bells infiltrate the B-flat Major “Cantabile” Prelude, rife with left hand double notes. Sokolov does manage to bring a nervous “song” to the frenetic G Minor, a tempest if ever Chopin conceived one. Pure serenity in the F Major, with its flowing sixteenths and rippling trills, all standing between two towers of emotional turmoil. The cruel ostinato of the D Minor leads to a sweeping statement of a stab into the very heart, touched by a fatal melancholy. It killed poor Sibyl Vane in Wilde’s Dorian Gray, at least when Hurd Hatfield “interpreted” it. Listen to the wistful softening of the tissue by Sokolov, just prior to his coda.

The audience reaction at Salzburg invoked six encores, of which the two Scriabin poemes seem inevitable to an inflamed Russian soul. The two Chopin mazurkas range from the early, stately A Minor Lento to the harmonically dense and melodically angular C-sharp Minor Allegretto of Op. 63. Rameau’s “piece de clavecin,” Les Sauvages, provides a decorative series of flourishes in dancing colors. Sokolov concludes with a Bach chorale-prelude of subjective, restrained beauty, much as Lipatti had said farewell to his Besancon audience over sixty years ago. May the gods grant Sokolov a more enduring fate on this plane of existence!

—Gary Lemco

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