Grigory Sokolov plays Schubert & Beethoven
To call Sokolov’s Schubert heavy-laden would certainly be no exaggeration. However, to say, as the gushy booklet essay does of the C minor Impromptu that opens the first of these two discs, that ‘listeners who abandon themselves unreservedly to Schubert’s music and to Sokolov’s interpretation of it will have the uncomfortable feeling that their very existence is threatened’ really is a bit much. Not that spaciousness is the most surprising aspect here – after all, few if any pianists take the Allegro molto moderato marking of the C minor Impromptu at face value. More challenging to many ears will be the steadiness of the E flat Impromptu and the liberally applied hesitations of the A flat. Allied to undoubted pianistic mastery, such unorthodoxy certainly commands attention, even if it may seem a touch attention-seeking. But hardest of all to take, for me at least, is the G flat Impromptu, where the tempo may be a straight-down-the-middle Schubertian Andante but where the tone quality is curiously lumpy and ill-blended, while large-scale contrasts are undermined by an unvarying high-gloss projection.
Bafflement continues in the first of the Klavierstücke, D946, which Sokolov begins as though unaware of the notated contrasts of piano and forte. This piece feels every second of its 14 minutes, partly because – like a number of major pianists, to be sure – Sokolov includes the Andantino that Schubert (wisely, in my view) crossed out. To compensate, there is much beautiful playing in the second and third pieces.
Perhaps it’s safest to say that this is the kind of playing that divides opinion, and leave it at that. What to some may feel like hectoring rhetoric and artificial appassionato may come across to others as exhilarating freedom and compelling expressive presence. One-dimensional, mannered and predictable, or daring and inspiring…?
It is a fact, however, that at close on 53 minutes Sokolov’s Hammerklavier – from Salzburg, whereas his Schubert is from Warsaw – is exceedingly long. Probably not a world record; but those versions on my shelves clock in at anything from 37 to 48 minutes. The excess duration has nothing to do with the Scherzo, which is dispatched with a curious kind of toy-soldier peckiness but at a normal tempo, or with the fugue, which is both streamlined and superbly articulate. Rather it is down to an exceptionally grand opening movement (minim=76 or thereabouts, compared to Beethoven’s notoriously challenging 138) and a slow movement that is admittedly difficult to measure, since Sokolov’s rubato is so pervasive, but which goes by for long stretches at little more than half the notated tempo. When done with a Richterian or Yudina-esque self-negation, such things can, arguably, be made to work, and once again there is no doubting the presence of a major pianist. But with so much relentless ‘top-note’ bashing, poky pseudo-cantabile and an apparent urge to push the piano through the floor at climaxes (including an unfortunate mis-hit at the end of the first movement), I felt that my tolerance levels were being deliberately challenged, and ultimately found wanting.
Having said all that, if someone had played me Sokolov’s twinkling Rameau and dreamy Brahms encores first, I would have been champing at the bit to hear what preceded them. Go figure…