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Grigory Sokolov Mozart & Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos Out March 10

Those who seek fame for fame’s sake can go far, all too far, in a world in which every morsel of celebrity gossip, every facile nugget of self-promotion is devoured or debated as if it were holy writ. Grigory Sokolov stands for something very different, untouched by the public relations game, unmoved by calls to share his thoughts with journalists. The irony is that the Russian pianist, thanks to his careful avoidance of media interviews and marketing hype, attracts global attention as the master musician who prefers to let his music-making speak for itself. Anyone eager to analyze the motives for Sokolov’s silence should listen first to the poetic eloquence of his artistry in the cadenza from the opening movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major K488, where the subtle interplay of phrasing, articulation and expression far exceeds the power of words. Or to the elemental energy and transcendent intensity he brings to the finale of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto. What would be the point of adding a running commentary? No point at all for Sokolov. It would be as pointless as discussing the geometry of the Sistine Chapel ceiling while contemplating Michelangelo’s sublime frescoes. The conclusion is clear: analysis, however smart or illuminating, is a process of reduction; music is the art of expansion.

Sokolov’s live recordings of Mozart and Rachmaninov’s concertos, set for international release on 10 March 2017 via Deutsche Grammophon / Universal Music Canada are not “new” in chronological terms. But they are fresh and likely to remain so, no matter how many times we hear them. The Mozart was made at the 2005 Salzburg Mozart Week; the Rachmaninov dates from a decade earlier, recorded at the Royal Albert Hall during the centenary season of the BBC Proms.

Sokolov has chosen these acclaimed performances to stand as the third release under his exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon. He joined the company in 2014 on condition that it would only issue live albums. “Editing disturbs the balance of things,” he observed, in the days when he still gave interviews. “Without ‘corrections’ my recordings are always better. For me the original is the model, and any change – even a single note – is a distortion.” Sokolov’s Deutsche Grammophon deal has enlarged and enhanced the pianist’s deliberately small discography, adding two solo recital albums and two concerto performances to a catalogue that had been unchanged for twenty years.

Studio retakes and edits are not for Grigory Sokolov: music is something to be made in the present moment, unique and unrepeatable. The live experience is all-encompassing. It is rare for more than a week to pass between his recitals and much rarer to find an unsold ticket for any one of them. Sokolov’s way of performing amounts to a spiritual practice, in which every emotion is heightened, every gesture channelled towards the service of something greater than self. There can be no compromise, no consideration other than total immersion in the artworks to hand. That’s why Sokolov, hungry for the greatest possible rehearsal time, no longer collaborates with orchestras and conductors. Given that his concerto performances were already few by the time he decided to focus exclusively on the solo recital repertoire, these visionary readings of two great concertos by Mozart and Rachmaninov will stand as landmarks of the piano catalogue: vital, timeless examples of the art of interpretation.

The spirit of history also touches Nadia Zhdanova’s film portrait of Sokolov, aptly entitled A Conversation That Never Was and included as a DVD companion to his concerto album. Zhdanova, like so many before her, failed to secure an interview with her film’s subject. Yet she constructed a rich portrait of the artist by talking to members of his family, close friends and colleagues, juxtaposing their thoughts with the poetry of Sokolov’s late wife, Inna Sokolova, to create a sense of man and artist, myth and reality. One of Zhdanova’s interviewees helps explain the magnetic draw of Sokolov’s charismatic artistry: “‘If you don’t like it, go away’ is not the law of a great musician,” he notes. “If you don’t like it, listen more carefully, try to understand me and you are mine.”

Grigory Sokolov, born in Leningrad in 1950, found his natural home in music. “At four years old I somehow knew that music would be my life,” he told Gramophone in the mid-1990s. “We had records at home and I ‘conducted’ everything I heard: piano music, opera, ballets, symphonies. Only when my parents acquired an upright piano did I stop conducting.” Young Grisha received his first piano lessons at the age of five and entered the Leningrad Conservatory’s Central Special School two years later to study with Liya Zelikhman. The Soviet system placed high value on classical music. It provided a comprehensive training for emerging talents that underlined the importance of technical ability and tonal refinement, and promoted the pursuit of excellence.

Sokolov progressed to study with Moisey Khalfin at the Leningrad Conservatory and gave his first recital in his home city in 1962. He went on to win the coveted Gold Medal at the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1966, becoming its youngest winner following the last-minute intervention of Emil Gilels, the competition’s jury chairman and one of the last century’s greatest pianists. Gilels subsequently championed Sokolov’s early career, which flourished within the Soviet Union and ranged beyond the Iron Curtain with concert tours of the United States and Japan in the 1970s.

A few years ago, the Spectator described Sokolov as “the greatest living pianist”, someone who “manages to do things with a piano that should be categorised under ‘not humanly possible’.” His mature artistry, touched by individual genius and downright brilliance, rests on deep foundations set during his formative years. In the decades since the Soviet Union’s collapse, Sokolov has continued his unrelenting quest for perfection, reinforcing his legendary status with performances shot through with creative insights and pulse-quickening originality.

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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