Grigory Sokolov, who won the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1966 at the age of 16, has become the Sergiu Celibidache of the keyboard. He does not believe in making studio recordings, and has eschewed publicity, interviews, the music business itself — indeed, anything extraneous to making music. Though he still gives recitals, and occasionally permits recordings made from these recitals to be commercially released, he remains aloof, reclusive, and willfully unconventional. As with Celibidache, this uncompromising stance has made him a mythical figure in the West.
As this DVD recital makes abundantly clear, Sokolov is the real thing, one of the great pianists of our time. His touch is exacting, vibrant, and expressive. He can produce a huge "orchestral" sound, an extraordinarily varied range of prismatic color. Aspects of his playing often remind me of great pianists of the past: Rubenstein's tonal beauty, Arrau's structural integrity and authority, Richter's dynamism and intensity. But for all that, he sounds completely original. His interpretations are free, single-minded, but never mannered or arbitrary. There is an inescapable rightness to what he's doing at any given moment. He can be intimate or apocalyptic, whatever the music demands.
The three Beethoven sonatas are presented as a set, without a break; a tactic that emphasizes the composer's growth and development. Sokolov takes us on a spiritual journey that begins with the playful, Haydnesque opening of Op. 14, No. 1, and ends with the surprisingly sharp, dramatic contrasts that characterize the last movement of op. 28. What consistently amazes here is Sokolov's ability to faithfully represent the wide variety of moods in these three very different works. His playing has charm, humor, intense beauty, and when required, muscularity. The six dances by Armenian composer Komitas Vardapet are folk-inspired works, at once nostalgic and ghostly. Sokolov presents them with appropriate delicacy and otherworldliness. As for the Prokofiev, it would be easy enough to say that this is one of the many great performances of this impossibly difficult work, but I think it's even better than that; simply the best performance of the sonata that I've ever heard. Sokolov clarifies Prokofiev's thick textures and makes every difficult, knuckle-busting note matter. In the last movement especially, his playing presents a startling balance between control and hysteria.
The encores are no less remarkably accomplished. The two Chopin mazurkas are very free, but gracefully tinged with melancholy. Sokolov is apparently very fond of early keyboard music — composers such as Couperin, Byrd, and Rameau — and this performance of Le tic-Toc Choc, with its crossed-hand figures, is astonishing in its precision and rhythmic acuity. He is also fond of Bach, and the Prelude that closes this recital (arr. Siloti) suggests a true affinity for the composer. His Bach is romantic, but transparent, supple, and graciously phrased.
In the end, this is the kind of playing that stops the breath, produces goosebumps, and stays in mind long afterward. Happily, the DVD production was directed by Bruno Monsaingeon, who has also made documentaries about Glenn Gould and Sviatoslov Richter. He gives us many looks at Sokolov plying his trade at the keyboard, but one is never overly aware of the camera. It always seems to be pointed at just what we want or need to be looking at. There's a real sense of intimacy here, a privileged glimpse of what Emily Dickinson called "a soul at the white heat." The sound is excellent throughout, and captures both the detail and grandeur of the playing. For those interested in the keyboard or this repertory, I couldn't recommend a DVD more urgently. It's probably as close as you're going to get to one of the great pianists of our time.