Grigory Sokolov, Warsaw 10 December 2017 - Spiritual Transcendence Achieved on Earth


Joseph Haydn - Sonata in B Minor, No. 47, Hob.XVI:32              1774-1776
Joseph Haydn - Sonata in G Minor, No. 32, Hob.XVI:44              1771-1773
Joseph Haydn - Sonata in C-sharp Minor, No. 49, Hob.XVI:36   1770-1775

Ludwig van Beethoven - Sonata in E Minor, Op. 90
Ludwig van Beethoven - Piano Sonata in C Minor, Op. 111

As I wandered the streets of Warsaw outside the Filharmonia just before Christmas, flurries of light snow brushed my cheeks. In somewhat of a daze, perhaps of dissolution, I began to reflect on one of the handful of truly remarkable musical experiences of my life, the piano recital this evening by Grigory Sokolov. 

Such a miraculous phenomenon went far beyond what is normally regarded as a 'performance', far beyond technical accomplishment or crass celebrity ostentation. This recital inhabited that rarefied realm of the greatest in art and even further took us on a spiritual journey into the domain of the ethereal and the immanent. 

It is said 'There are pianists and there is Sokolov.' He is undoubtedly a 'soul' with all the connotations of beauty and emotional range of feeling stretching from sunlit joy through stoical suffering to darkest despair, qualities of character delineated in all the greatest nineteenth century Russian literature. On this magical night, the psyche of both audience and pianist were in a particularly rare state of receptive and projective harmony seldom encountered in concert halls. This symbiosis of feeling was fundamental for the development of the mystical and metaphysical atmosphere that slowly but surely began to prevail and hypnotize us with sound, tone, poetry and colour.

Haydn conducting a String Quartet (© Archivo Iconografico, S.A./Corbis)

Sokolov began with three Haydn sonatas that the composer wrote between 1770 and 1776 in middle age. They are exciting and rather experimental works. The classical keyboard sonata changed its nature and developed during the eighteenth century. This was accompanied by changes in the keyboard instruments themselves from harpsichord and clavichord to the hammer-actioned fortepiano. His last sonatas were dedicated to this instrument and its dynamic possibilities. 

Sokolov not unexpectedly had a complete command of the classical style with a true feeling for the reduction of ornamentation in keyboard composition that was taking place as the eighteenth century progressed. The elegance, finesse and refinement of touch and tone of earlier instruments was perfectly evoked on the Steinway but not slavishly imitated. Judicious and finely judged 'dry' pedaling. Superb articulation with masterly dynamic and rhythmic control gave each an affecting intimacy even in this relatively cavernous space. 

Haydn brought a rare 5½ octave grand piano by Longman and Broderip back to Vienna with him when he returned from England in 1795, a journey not often undertaken by any grand piano from London
[From the Cobbe Collection at Hatchlands Park in Surrey]
You can listen to this instrument here:

Perhaps a little of the flair and undoubted affectations of the 
Esterházy court was lacking by approaching this music slightly seriously. After all much chamber music, harpsichord and piano music of the period was written partly for social diversion and delightful entertainment on the limited volume keyboard instruments available in small salons. Even the idea of an orchestral conductor in the manner in which Beethoven pioneered it (directing individual orchestral players) as we have become accustomed to was considered a novelty at the time. The idea of filling a massive modern concert hall with pianoforte sound, except perhaps in the last virtuoso sonatas, was scarcely conceived. Yet Sokolov was never tempted to inflate the dynamics or exaggerate the tempi attempting a 'modernization' of the concert approach to Haydn which so distorts the spirit of the earlier sonatas. He was never tempted to 'Beethovenize' these works or emasculate them. There were tantalizing hints of the still undeveloped dramatic Sturm und Drang of the symphonies but the brilliant inventiveness and harmonic as well as rhythmic surprises of Haydn were ever present and presented to us with great élan. 

After the interval, Beethoven. Here began with the Op.90 Sonata what was to become an inexorable climb into the metaphysical domain of the soul, divesting us piece by piece of the saturated clay of the earth until an epiphany on the final note of Op.111. 

Composed in 1814, the Sonata in E minor Op.90 was written during years of severe stress and anxiety for Beethoven. From 1812-1817 he was preoccupied with the law-suit with his sister-in-law over the custody of his nephew Karl, a letter full of anguish and despair to the 'Immortal Beloved' and the tortuous progression of his deafness. Not a time of great productivity.  

Of this two movement sonata, Sokolov gave us a despairing and passionate first movement, saturated in loneliness. Instead of the tempo indications in Italian, Beethoven mines his emotional life to come up with, at the time,  unconventional expressive indications in German: Mit Lebhaftigkeit und durchaus mit Empfindung und Ausdruck ('With vivacity and with feeling and expression throughout') perfectly realized by this pianist. The beautiful almost Schubertian cantablile rondo melody in the following movement is marked: Nicht zu geschwind und sehr singbar vorgetragen ('Not too swiftly and conveyed in a songful manner). This foreshadowing of Romanticism was expressed by Sokolov with perfect legato and cantilena as well affecting poetry. The lean and delicate writing here with hints of struggle ends at peace in the extraordinary last two bars.

A page from Beethoven's Sonata No: 32 in C minor op.111

Sokolov followed attacca in launching an immense granite block of an opening to the Sonata in C minor Op.111 of 1822. He derived intensity of sentiment from the tension between the sonata and fugal elements in the texture of the turbulent, passionate opening movement: Maestoso–Allegro con brio ed appassionato. Noble in stance and tempo, Sokolov unfolded it before us like a panorama of Greek tragedy with its monumental succession of diminished seventh chords. In this sonata Beethoven has begun to extract the most profound meaning from the most limited of means, a process which continues throughout the work as it becomes increasingly meditative and introspective, increasingly metaphysical in the face of the Great Reaper. E.T.A. Hoffmann refers to this exploration as the monumental in Beethoven, a composer who 'carves his essential being from the inner kingdom of tones, and reigns over it as its absolute ruler.'  

Sokolov achieved a prodigious feat in constructing such an awe-inspiring edifice. Here had been prepared a sublime assault on the summit of the mountain, a path carved to the sunlit alpine pastures of clear air and azure sky and even further beyond, out of this world of the corporeal into the mystical. 

'Here it comes!' as Wendell Kretchmar excitedly exclaims at the beginning of his lecture on the sonata in Thomas Mann's Dr. Faustus. In the Arietta – Adagio molto semplice e cantabile Beethoven achieves immense significance from the slenderest of means, an innocent fragment perhaps taken from a trite waltz by Diabelli is transformed. The innocence of its life is transfigured by a multitude of vicissitudes and variations into a sweeping chiaroscuro painting, a landscape of human spiritual aspiration and at times physical existence, revealed from beneath the mysterious veil of reality that cloaks us all. As magical a musical prefiguring and revelation as the appearance of the legendary 'Sun of Austerlitz' was for the victory of Napoleon at the Battle of the Three Emperors in 1805.

In a miraculous moment that followed almost fifteen minutes of unadulterated C major, Sokolov suspended the passage of time in the climax of  what appears to be a cadential trill, the texture and sound of which under Solokov's fingers I have never heard emerge from a piano ever before. It hovered above us, suspended in a shimmering, transcendental cloud of sound floating timelessly, seemingly endless in duration, transformed into a rich triple trill before returning to C major like a bird of fabulous plumage turns back to its nest and its own resolution. 

There was no forward movement here, time had miraculously stopped, absolute stasis predominated in a state of suspended animation. He mystically captured the essential essence of what it is to be human in an imperishable moment of profound introspection. The capacity audience were reduced to a hushed silence pregnant with attention. The last page and the trill returned after increasingly accelerating variations until the slowest form of the theme was suspended beneath it like a lantern sheltering under a vast oak. In the upper register, a brief celestial flight of the soul followed as if released from the shackles of existence. Then a close of dignified resignation, a calm acceptance of mortality after the great opera of life depicted in the Arietta had played itself out to a conclusion. I coud not help reflecting how Beethoven (and possibly other composers) may well have adored the potential of the modern instrument under such fingers as these. 

At the completion of this great traverse, Sokolov sat hunched at the instrument for some time as the entire hall meditated briefly on what had passed and where they had been taken spiritually and philosophically by Beethoven and by this medium for the expression his composition, this mysterious channeller of his musical genius. I am sure you will find it overwrought and fanciful but at times it was as if the composer himself was with us at the instrument. The greatest performance of op. 111 I have ever been privileged to hear, the performance of a lifetime. 

The inevitable tumultuous applause resulted in the tragic destruction of the gossamer net that had been woven around us. Sokolov took a long time to return to the stage for what became a succession of six encores, his usual generous number. As someone whimsically observed, the encores could well have been performed before the sonata allowing us to prolong our meditation. 

Of course Sokolov encores are each remarkable performances in themselves. One dare not quit the hall. First a superfine Schubert Moment musical D 940/1, then two deeply moving Chopin Nocturnes Op. 32 No: 1 & 2 presented as dreams of life after death. He continues to pursue his fascination with harpsichord music (Couperin, Rameau even Froberger) and gave us a marvelously articulated and lively piece by Rameau - 'L'Indiscrète' from the 'Pièces de clavecin en concerts' of 1741 - Quatrième Concert. A generous return to Chopin and a dark and fateful, doom-laden and insistent Prelude No 15 in D flat major op. 28 followed by an ominous monumental Prelude No: 20 in C minor from the same Op. 28 set.

I left the Filharmonia in a mood of spiritual elation and physical dislocation, inspired by this gesture of consolation and renewed faith in the creative powers of human nature, faced as we are by so many unspeakable realities. A recital I shall remember forever
To quote once again from Shakespeare's St. Crispin's Day speech  from Henry V 

And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

My reviews of previous Sokolov recitals in Warsaw can be found on this link:


  1. Michael, thank you for the wonderful review!
    Only one correction. The 4th encore was: Rameau. L'Indiscrète in B-flat Major (from Pièces de clavecin en concerts - Cinquième Concert)


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