Grigory Sokolov in recital at the Salzburg Festival.
Photo courtesy of Salzburg Festival / Marco Borrelli

On Tuesday night, Grigory Sokolov played a recital in the Great Festival Hall here at the Salzburg Festival. The Russian pianist is a fixture at this festival. He plays an annual recital. And he is a hero of the festival.

This year, there were seats on either side of the stage—extra seats. I had never seen this in the Great Festival Hall, for anybody.

He is a remarkable pianist, Sokolov. At times, he can play amateurishly, incomprehensibly. You can’t understand how he got a career. And then you do understand—because he is now playing sublimely.

When he’s on, no one is better. And almost no one equals him.

Over the years, I have often said of another pianist, Lang Lang, “He never plays badly. His fingers can do whatever he tells them to. It’s just that he sometimes thinks badly.” The same is true, I think, of Sokolov.

That is a statement that would drive Sokolov fans nuts, if they heard it. They consider their guy a high priest of the piano; they probably consider Lang Lang a vulgar showman. Nevertheless, I believe my statement applies to both.

Sokolov can be eccentric in his playing, as I have said, or suggested. So too, he is eccentric in his stage manner. Even the trappings around him are strange. The lighting on the stage, when he’s playing, is dim. His bench is a little weird too: thin and, as far as I could tell, high.

His program on Tuesday night comprised Schumann on the first half and Chopin on the second. At encore time, there was Schubert.

Sokolov began with Schumann’s Arabesque, Op. 18. He started out well, with a nice singing line. But then he got very eccentric. He warped the music. He virtually recomposed it. There was some odd detachment in the left hand.

Was all this warping and recomposing interesting (as such liberties can be)? No, not really.

Without pause, he went right into the next piece, Schumann’s Fantasy in C, Op. 17, as if the two pieces were connected, which they are not. This is plain wrong. Dishonest, even.

In any event, the Fantasy in C ought to be right up Sokolov’s alley—because it requires a poetic imagination, smoothness of technique, and beauty of sound. Sokolov has those in spades.

The first of the three movements was okay. Sokolov did some more of his warping. And the music was a little static. The second movement was okay too. It needed more of a pulse, a keener sense of momentum. The final movement ought to be transcendent. Sokolov made some of his pearly sounds. But, you know, I could never forget him. I could never forget that it was Sokolov playing the third movement of the C-major Fantasy. The music ought to be inevitable. Instead, Sokolov was causing it to happen, which was unfortunate.

Also, at the end, he did something I had never heard him do before: pound. I didn’t think he was capable of it.

So, intermission. I have been to lots of Sokolov recitals. I know not to write them off. On the contrary.

The second half of this one began with the two nocturnes that make up Chopin’s Op. 32. No. 1 is in B major, No. 2 in A flat. Pianists seldom program these nocturnes. It was good to hear them.

And it was good to hear Sokolov in them. He was well-nigh perfect. He seemed to forget himself, and we could forget him, too. I will mention just one of the qualities he exhibited: weightedness. He knows how to accord notes the right weight, and that includes, critically, final notes. Another way to say this is, his notes match one another, rather than being out of balance.

Then came the last work on the program, Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, the one with the funeral march. Sokolov did not wait for applause between the nocturnes and the sonata, alas.

The first movement should be poetically stormy, or stormily poetic, if you like. It was pretty much like that. The music had too little dynamic variation, however. What I mean is, Sokolov tended to play this movement at one level, robbing it of some of its color and life. The second movement, the Scherzo, was adequate. But it could have used more suspense and bite. The funeral march was good: slow and well shaped.

As for the final movement—Presto—it was unusual. Unusual and effective. Sokolov took it as slowly as you will ever hear it. Often, this music is like a whirlwind. (Artur Rubinstein famously described it as “wind blowing over gravestones.”) From Sokolov, it was measured, and you could hear every note. There was no blur. At any rate, it was almost hypnotic. And it represented another way of thinking about this movement.

The audience gave Sokolov due applause, and they knew, probably, that they were in for a second recital: a slew of encores. Sokolov made them wait for a long time for the first. But then he started a Moment musical (Schubert). And then another. And then another one . . .

Ladies and gentlemen, it was sublime. Unerring. Perfect. The music was aristocratic, stately, soulful. I had no sense of Sokolov at all. I barely had a sense of Schubert. This was just music, from some beyond-earth place.

Gone was all warping, gone was all eccentricity. Even individualism was absent. This was just pure music. “Just,” I say!

Let me mention one Moment musical in particular: No. 6 in A flat. I have heard piano playing as good. I’ll be damned if I have heard better—from Gilels, Horowitz, the young Perahia, Moravec, any of them.

By now, I have heard a good many Sokolov recitals, and I have discerned a pattern (not that it takes a Sherlock Holmes): Sokolov tends to start out eccentric, and sometimes indefensible. But then he settles into a groove. Not a finger groove, but a mental one. He becomes at one with the music.

And then, watch out.

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