As Grigory Sokolov played Schubert’s Impromptu in F minor, D. 935, No. 1, I had this thought: “I have never heard better piano playing in my life.” No, not ever. As good, yes: I remember, for example, Zoltán Kocsis in another Schubert work, the Sonata in B flat, D. 960. But better, no.
I suppose I’ve been listening to pianists since the mid-1970s—from Horowitz to Trifonov, so to speak. I’ve heard almost all of them (Gilels, Serkin, Moravec, Pletnev . . . ). I have never heard anyone better than Sokolov was in the Great Festival Hall at the Salzburg Festival last night.
And that includes Sokolov, who has been appearing in Salzburg for many years. He does not travel to America, apparently. What a shame.
His program last night consisted of Haydn on the first half and Schubert on the second. The Haydn was three sonatas—and Sokolov was warmed up from the beginning. In my experience, he takes a while to warm up, having a so-so first half and a great second half—and a great series of encores. But last night, he was ready from the start.
This is a mental thing, surely, not a physical one.
His Haydn was, in a word, great. In another one—even more daring—perfect. The music was perfectly sculpted. The phrasing was inarguable. The tone or tones were beautiful, as the pianist sang along the keyboard. You could hardly believe that the piano is a percussion instrument.
Always, Sokolov’s Haydn was clear. Always, it had rhythmic sense. It had suspense, when necessary. And aristocracy, when necessary. And impishness, when necessary. The unison playing was a model of evenness.
Would I have played three Haydn sonatas in a row? No, I think a more varied program is more interesting, is friendlier to the listener. But if you’re going to play three Haydn sonatas in a row—play them like Sokolov.
By the way, last Saturday night at the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York, Paul Lewis, an English pianist, played three Haydn sonatas in a row. He is a worthy pianist, of a different school from Sokolov. (I’m not sure Sokolov has a school.) I will comment on Lewis in my next “New York Chronicle” for the magazine.
As Sokolov was nearing the end of his first half, something remarkable happened (aside from the playing). A rainstorm broke out in Salzburg, and the roof of the Great Festival Hall sprang a leak. Rain was pouring in from a light fixture, dousing the patrons in the second row or so. Some stood up, trying to leave or otherwise wondering what to do. You can imagine the commotion. Sokolov kept playing, unperturbed. That was professionalism.
On the other hand, I’m not 100 percent sure that Sokolov was even aware of the problem. Typically, he’s in his own private Idaho.
The second half of the recital brought all four of the impromptus in Schubert’s D. 935. If I had been Sokolov, I would have walked out with an umbrella, just for fun. But Sokolov is a different sort.
It was holy without being overly reverent. Sokolov just played, discerning the music.
What made the first impromptu so great? (And the other three as well, really?) I could cite a variety of pianistic things. For instance, Sokolov is unusually obedient to the line, the musical line. But I will say simply that the music was touched with the divine. It had an angelic spark. It was holy but not precious.
I can put that a little better: it was holy without being overly reverent. Sokolov just played, discerning the music.
His playing of the fourth impromptu, marked Allegro scherzando—Più presto, was unusually slow. It was also unusually mature. Sokolov would not be rushed. (Neither would he drag.) He was mellow, in a Schubertian way, not headlong.
A young pianist, Yekwon Sunwoo, played these impromptus in New York last month. He won the Van Cliburn Competition last year. In New York, he was headlong and impetuous in the fourth impromptu, and not wrongly so. But what will he be doing when he reaches Sokolov’s age?
At a Sokolov recital, you always get a “second concert,” as people used to say—a slew of encores. So it was last night. One of those encores was the “Raindrop Prelude” of Chopin. Was Sokolov alluding to the shower, earlier in the evening? No, I don’t think so. That prelude is a regular encore of his. And, again, I’m not sure that the unusual Mr. Sokolov was even aware of the shower. Still, it was a nice coincidence.
And it would have been too much to ask for an arrangement of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” (Bacharach).