Readers of The New Criterion are familiar with Grigory Sokolov, the Russian pianist (born in 1950). He does not come to America, but he plays in Europe, and YouTube is swimming with recordings and videos of Sokolov. I have reviewed him regularly at the Salzburg Festival. For a 2018 review, go here. And for a ’16, go here.
He will play again in Salzburg this year, on August 4. Alas, Americans have a hard time getting to Europe these days.
Sokolov has virtuosity to spare, no doubt. But in recent years he has been essentially a poetic and cerebral pianist. The same is true of another Russian pianist, Arcadi Volodos (born in 1972). In virtuosic terms, these guys own a Lamborghini, but rarely take it past 75 or so.
Incidentally, Volodos is another pianist who does not come to America (as far as I know) but who plays in Europe regularly, including at the Salzburg Festival. His recital there this year will take place a week after Sokolov’s. The United States is missing out on two of the best pianists in the world (or ever).
A glimpse of Sokolov in the past can be had in this video. The year is 1992, the city Stockholm. Sokolov is playing three Rachmaninoff preludes, beginning with the one in B flat, which is oceanic. Sokolov gives you waves of beautiful, stirring, amazing sound.
Another glimpse can be had here. This time, the year is 1987, and the city Helsinki. Sokolov is playing an encore after a concerto. The piece is Chopin’s Étude in C minor, Op. 25, No. 12—which is actually nicknamed “the Ocean.”
So, what is my point in this little post? My point is this: that virtuosity, fire, passion, and wizardry are parts of music. The same as lyricism, grace, and so on are. Often, composers call for virtuosity, fire, and the rest. And the complete musician can provide those. Also, these elements are not to be scoffed at.
Pianists such as Myra Hess, Clara Haskil, and Ivan Moravec are often thought of as poetic, soulful pianists, and they were. But make no mistake: they had boatloads of technique, and they could unleash virtuosity when they wanted.
Consider, too, that pianists have seasons—and I’m not talking about years (the ’20-’21 season, the ’21-’22 season) but rather seasons of life. Rudolf Serkin was born in 1903. I started hearing him, in recital, in the late 1970s, and went on listening to him for the next ten years. Recently, traveling the highways and byways of YouTube, I came upon this: a recording of Serkin in 1948, from the Library of Congress. He is playing the Chopin Études, Op. 25.
I was astonished, I must say. Well-nigh shocked. Forgive me, but I never knew that Serkin could play like this: with a near-Horowitzian virtuosity, coupled with a sure musicality.
Isn’t YouTube a treasury—and a revelation—by the way?