Saturday, April 16, 2005

Sokolov: this is what it's all about

The long-sold-out QEH recital by Grigory Sokolov yesterday has left me sleepless most of the night.

Do you remember what tomatoes are supposed to taste like? Sometimes you go to the Mediterranean - Israel, Italy, the south of France - and you eat a tomato that has just come off its plant, as red as a garnet and with a flavour as rich as if it's been ripened inside a volcano. And you think 'ah...I remember now...that's what it should taste like.' Not the pallid greenhouse (conservatory?) ones we buy in the supermarkets here. Somehow you know - as if you're remembering, even if you've never actually eaten one like this before - that this is the real thing and that nothing else passing for a tomato can ever taste as good, because this tomato has grown to be everything a tomato can and should be.

Sokolov's playing is like that.

It's difficult even to decide where to begin. Tone quality, I suppose, is as good as anywhere. Sokolov is a hefty fellow and he uses big gestures. His tone is massive and mountainous when he lets rip, but at every dynamic level it keeps its richness and beauty. In the first arpeggio of the Schubert A major Sonata D 959, the first piece on his programme, the quality of tone was so pure and smooth and magical that I found tears in my eyes from that alone. And although he's a big bear of a man, he can be as graceful as a ballet dancer (take the hand crossings in the Schubert) and create sounds as delicate as a hummingbird. He often chooses to play slowly and deliberately, to the point of idiosyncrasy; but the most rapid, filigree, spidersweb playing of the Chopin Fantasie-Impromptu proved that he does only what he chooses to do.

Then there's the way he orchestrates at the piano. If every piainist played this way, we'd have no need for orchestras, because this instrument turned into a one-man Berlin Philharmonic (or perhaps Moscow). Who knows how he does it - but the subtlest shift in weight or nuancing brings in a new character, a newly invented instrument, a new notion or emotion that can suddenly cast everything you've just heard in a revelatory new light. The second half was all Chopin: the impromptus, the two Op.62 Nocturnes and the Polonaise-Fantasie; the G flat impromptu, taken about half the speed most people take it, had a tenderness and profundity that could stop hearts and the B major nocturne glowed from within, filled with deep, unimaginable colours.

But then, just when you thought you'd heard it all, he unleashed the Polonaise-Fantasie. It was like listening to an entire Tolstoy novel compressed into a few pages of music - so expertly structured that when the climax arrived it emerged as a shattering apotheosis that blew the emotional horizon away into something resembling heaven. I wasn't the only one moved past reason by this - one of my dearest friends, a piano-world professional, tells me she simply burst into tears at the end because she had never realised that the Polonaise-Fantasie could be played like that. Nor, I reckon, had the rest of us.

This was an evening that showed what art is for and what art truly is. It's all real; it does exist; it is possible. Every shade of nuance, every grand-scale emotion that you never quite believed in, is absolutely true; to experience them is the ultimate reality of being human; this is love in its most pure and ecstatic form and to transmute it into artistry is something worth living for and worth dying for. This is why we have great art and why we need great art. Nothing else should do.

ADDENDUM, 17 APRIL: Here's a review of the concert. from Ying Chang at