First recital in Moscow at the age of 12
Wins the International Tchaikovsky Competition, with the jury, headed by Emil Gilels, unanimously voting for him
Politics and music clash as a change in British visa requirements means Sokolov no longer plays in the UK
In 2008 a change in the law meant that Britain was deprived of one of the world’s most compelling musicians. For the introduction of biometric screening proved too much for the Russian-educated, Italian-domiciled Grigory Sokolov, who felt that his time would be better spent on music than travelling to Rome every time he needed a visa, bringing to an abrupt halt an 18-year relationship with the UK’s concert halls.
Grigory Sokolov’s early life followed that of many prodigiously gifted Russian artists. He was born in Leningrad in 1950, three years before the death of Stalin. Showing a precocious interest in music, he would conduct to all his parent’s records, only ceasing when they bought an upright piano. He recalls that by the age of four he knew music would be his life. By seven he was at the junior school of the Leningrad Conservatoire, undertaking studies with teachers he described as ‘proficient and intensive’, something that continued into the Conservatoire itself. At 12 he gave his first major recital in Moscow. Four years later he took first prize at the 1966 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. This was back in the day when competitions really did mean something. The previous winners at the Moscow had been Van Cliburn in 1958, and in 1962 the first prize was shared between Vladimir Ashkenazy and John Ogdon. But these were artists in their mid-twenties; Sokolov was just 16.
And then? Silence. That’s not strictly true, of course, but opportunities for touring were limited – though there were several to the States before the intensification of the Cold War soured relations with Russia in the early 1980s. Perhaps it was no bad thing, for it gave him vital time to mature and to extend his repertoire. A video of Chopin’s Etude Op 10 No 8 from a concert in Finland in 1967 already shows prodigious technique and dramatic verve but it doesn’t yet have the sheer poetry that we revere in his playing these days.
So what is it that makes him so remarkable? For a start, there’s an element of unpredictability: not for him the trotting-out of an ever-diminishing range of repertoire. There’s a thirst there, and some of the repertoire he comes up with is remarkable for its unpianistic qualities, notably Byrd and Froberger.
He takes the score and runs with it. His famous – infamous to concert planners – reluctance to decide on a precise programme until the concert is virtually imminent is not the result of an oversize ego but a simple need to play only what he feels close to at any given moment. Whatever he’s playing, be it Couperin or Chopin, Beethoven or Prokofiev, he seems to have the ability to disappear into the world of each composer (he’s at the opposite end of the spectrum to a Horowitz or a Kissin in that respect), drawing out elements that you’ve never heard before, yet without sounding mannered. That is quite something. Take the Schumann Op 22 Sonata, for example, whose finale (as captured in 1988) is truly fiery. And as a bonus he also plays Schumann’s original, discarded finale, longer and prodigiously difficult.
Of course such a purity of vision, such a single-mindedness, comes with its own demands: no piano more than five years old; no studio recordings; a significant amount of rehearsal and tinkering-with-the-instrument time (which is why he no longer performs with orchestras). We owe a debt to Opus 111’s Yolanta Skura: she had the foresight to commit to releasing Sokolov’s live concerts, which form the bulk of his scant discography. DG was simply following in her footsteps when it announced last year an exclusive contract with Sokolov. The first release is of a recital nearly seven years old and two things particularly struck me: the first was how consistent Sokolov’s vision of the Chopin Preludes was when you compared it with his earlier release on Opus 111; and, second, the glory of his encores, which perhaps sum up his sheer range of interests as well as anything: Rameau, Chopin, Scriabin and, to end, Bach.
Sokolov himself eschews the idea of belonging to a school, pointing out that anyone who could be described as ‘Russian school’ is by their nature too anodyne to be of much interest. And anodyne he certainly is not. Take something like the Brahms Op 117 Intermezzos from a 1987 Leningrad recital, released last year by Melodiya as part of a four-CD box of live recordings: they exhibit a barely contained grief, yet also palpable is an all-important Classicism. Then there is his famed Petrushka, which is never merely a thunderous display of power but operatic in its drama, the colours of the more inward writing utterly inimitable. There’s so much more to mention but to me it’s perhaps his Bach-playing that is most extraordinary, and no one promises more than Grigory Sokolov in that rising fifth with which The Art of Fugue opens.
JS Bach The Art of Fugue, recorded live in St Petersburg in 1982