Grigory Sokolov, piano – SCHUBERT/ BEETHOVEN – DGG (2 discs) 

DGG combines two live Sokolov recitals to produce a towering program, intellectual and exciting at once.

Sokolov – SCHUBERT/ BEETHOVEN – SCHUBERT: Four Impromptus, D. 899; Drei Klavierstuecke, D. 946; BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat Major, Op. 106 “Hammerklavier”; RAMEAU: Les Tendres Plaintes; Les Tourbillons; Les Cyclopes; La Follette; Les Sauvages; BRAHMS: Intermezzo in b-flat minor, Op. 117, No. 2 – Grigory Sokolov, piano – DGG 479 5426 (2 CDs) 65:06, 73:20 (1/29/16) [Distr. by Universal] ****:

Russian piano virtuoso Grigory Sokolov (b. 1950) provides ample evidence of his musical prowess and acuity in excerpts from two live concert appearances, from Warsaw (12 May 2013) and from the Salzburg Festival (23 August 2013). Given the proximity to Schubert’s birthday of January 31 (1797), the dedicated intensity Sokolov demonstrates in the Four Impromptus of 1827 warrants our audition of the Sokolov’s Warsaw performance.

The program annotator for the DGG set, Oswald Beaujean, ascribes various metaphysical implications to Sokolov’s playing, while we might detect romantic indulgence in the long-breathed phrasing and poignant alternations of dynamics. The opening c minor Impromptu, a staid march with tragic and lyrical episodes, receives a broad canvas whose bass sonorities prove as compelling as the lyrical top line in A-flat had been, finally achieving a grudging inner peace in C Major. Sokolov takes the eighth note runs of the etude-like E-flat Major Impromptu rather marcato, imparting something more Iberian than Polish in the manner anticipatory of Chopin. The sforzatos in the coda provide an air of minor-mode finality on the occasion. The lovely G-flat Major Impromptu seems a cross between a Mendelssohn song without words and the middle movement of Beethoven’s Op. 13 “Pathetique” Sonata. The severity of Sokolov’s bass line reminds us of what Schubert intends for his late B-flat Sonata. Like the E-flat Impromptu, the final A-flat Major vacillates between tonic major and minor, proffering sixteenth notes in a scherzo form, even sporting a middle section labeled “trio.” For me, Artur Schnabel established a touch and arched phrasing in this song rarely matched by any other pianist. The melodic line seems to rise into a cello statement of secure beauty over lyrical arpeggios. Sokolov’s expansive treatment makes of this piece an introduction to an independent piece Schubert never completed.

The dark triptych of piano pieces, D. 946 (1828) has Sokolov’s emphasizing their passionate melancholy, and he prefers the elongated – via the Brahms edition – version the first, in e-flat minor. The piece has a galloping, rondo form; but its late-middle section in A-flat Major failed to win Schubert’s confidence, and he deleted it. Brahms edited the first edition and restored the excised notes – strange, given the Brahms habit of tossing away any musical matter that could not pass his punctilious muster. Marked Allegro assai, the piece receives a manic driven urgency from Sokolov, except in that lyrical aside, where we would likely miss its ingenuous presence. The glory of the set, in E-flat Major, Allegretto, a gondola song, accepts two major intrusions – in c minor and a-flat minor – that insert a mazy motion to the whole. The c minor episode by Sokolov bears a distinctly aggressive character, much in the manner of a Beethoven bagatelle. A suspended harmony leads to the second extended episode, an aria much in the Mendelssohn spirit, but whose bass line and harmonic shifts belong to only one master Schubert. The C Major Allegro allows Schubert his Hungarian gypsy sensibility clever play in syncopations and harmonic puns on D-flat Major. Certainly less intimate than its companions, the piece exudes a hearty, virtuosic energy, Sokolov percussive without harshness. The subtle shifts of the interior lines remind us of those wonderful chains of laendler Schubert could pour forth seemingly without effort.

Sokolov proffers a “revisionist” Hammerklavier Sonata from Salzburg, avoiding the percussive, “heroic” aspects for a series of lyrical gestures that look back to Beethoven’s Haydn influences. Sokolov softens the cadential periods, invoking rather transparent, stratified textures, almost whimsical in their diverse registers and figurations. The fugal second subject proceeds as pure Bach, realized alla musette. The Scherzo, played marcato, savors the antiphonal sonorities that emanate from competing registers. The secondary theme here rocks and lulls its way forward, over a subdued, turbulent bass that soon erupts into a brief wild dance. Then Sokolov makes it disappear.

With its opening notes Beethoven added later, the slow Adagio sostenuto movement conforms to its epithet, “a mausoleum of sorrows.” Given Sokolov’s inward, nearly moribund tempo, the tensions in this lyrically somber outpouring threaten to dissipate, sometimes hanging together merely by the decay of a lustrous-sounding note. Sokolov’s insistence on the value of a single tone or chord or rest now places Beethoven in line to the great practitioners of the Second Viennese School, a la Glenn Gould. Often, the dipping intervals suggest the inspiration for the Brahms e minor Symphony, especially with its own predilection for thirds as transitions. The epic last movement, Largo – Allegro risoluto, Sokolov opens with snippets of former themes – the Brahms idea of rueckblick – before proceeding in Bach style and then hesitating with more prefaces. The mania sets in – here Sokolov reminds us what power he commands in his trill – setting forth a fugue subject of some sixty notes over eight measures. It seems as if all human passions had been transmuted into dancing numbers, forward and backwards. The clarity of texture Sokolov evinces will remind some auditors of what Charles Rosen could invoke from his equally palatial designs.

The encores, dominated by the music of Jean-Philippe Rameau, assume the character of a recital by the Gallic master pianist Robert Casadesus. Rameau wanted his harpsichord to serve as a sustaining instrument, so as to invest his theatrical impulses with more “sensibility.” Les Tendres Plaintes proffers a lovely, ornamental weave – often in echo – of ardent emotions. Les Tourbillons provide us eddies of sound well before Moszkowski, but equally diverse and bold in their leaps. The tablature element in the harpsichord sonority does well here on the modern piano. Unlike its imposing title, the expansive Les Cyclopes proceeds in delicate and motorically lulling fashion in musical couplets, a real model for Debussy’s Bergamo passepied. La Follette smacks of bagpipe sonority with treble shades that Scarlatti would envy. Sokolov’s love of tempo rubato serves these pieces well. The last of the group, Les Sauvages, features an enchanting mix of sonorous effects, inventive, lively, teasingly delicate. The clamor leads inexorably to the final encore, the ultimate “rainy-day” Intermezzo in b-flat minor of the oft-anticipated Brahms, poetic and lonely. An idiosyncratic but beautifully co-ordinated production, this fine recital, and I highly recommend it.

—Gary Lemco

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