Showing posts with label Grigory Sokolov. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Grigory Sokolov. Show all posts

Thursday, June 04, 2020

Triumph, tragedy and trying very hard

Another week, another litany of bungles, idiocies and the counting of "excess" deaths (where's Beckett when you need him?) and in the arts world a paradoxical mingling of unjustified pessimism, unjustified optimism and unjustified attacks on one for the other are doing little to help. However, some things are moving, and they are not always the things you'd expect.

The Wigmore Hall has started a series of live-streamed lunchtime concerts in front of a physical audience of two (the head of the venue and the Radio 3 announcer). Taken up first by Radio 3 and subsequently by the European Broadcasting Union too, they are already reaching vast international audiences. Today you can hear Nicholas Daniel (oboe) and Julius Drake (piano). The Royal Opera House is planning to start a similar idea later this month. Everywhere there's streaming, creativity, resourcefulness. And everywhere I hear opinions like, "Oh, the big places will be fine because they have money. It's the smaller ones I'm worried about..."

Actually - no. It's the big ones that are at most risk: those that are too large to adapt easily. A smaller organisation that is not fixed to a large, costly venue stands much more chance of surviving through changing its own practices, because it can. For example, Viv McLean and I were booked some while ago for a performance at a local music society in November, at a small neighbourhood venue of which we are very fond. The other week I had a call that I expected to reveal the cancellation of the event. Instead, the director asked if we'd mind playing somewhere larger, where the audience would be able to be seated with social distancing. They moved the concert by one day and about 500 metres to a beautiful, spacious church. We currently expect the performance to go ahead. They can do that.

A venue like the Royal Albert Hall or the ROH has a different problem. Their bricks and mortar, their red plush and their histories are as much their selling point as the artistry they house - and the costs of running huge venues are, in a nutshell, ferocious. The ROH has warned that it risks folding if social distancing has to continue past the autumn, because the economics of running a theatre that way simply cannot work in the long term. A lean, mean entity that can be flexible about its numbers, its venues, its pay and its programming is a tree-climbing mammal alongside the immovable brontosaurs that we love so much.

Overseas, in places where the pandemic has been bettered managed and more swiftly conquered, where transport by road from other parts of Europe is a little easier, and where funding is more readily available, some festivals are starting to reconstitute themselves. In the latest move, an email from Pontresina tells me that the Engadin Festival, based in St Moritz, is going ahead, again using larger venues than planned to enable audience distancing, and due to reconstituting of attendance numbers, involving a surprise recital by Renaud Capuçon and Martha Argerich and not one but two, for two socially distanced crowds, by Grigory Sokolov.

Here in plague island, where we can also look forward to the double-whammy joys (not) of a fantasist government of zealots foisting hard brexit upon us in the new year, it's not so easy. Streaming and Zooming seem to be if not quite the future then certainly the present. Resourcefulness certainly pays off. The LPO held its annual fundraising gala online the other day, included an individually pre-recorded movement from the 'Eroica' and got its guests to put on DJs for the occasion. Idagio has launched a Global Concert Hall in which specially filmed performances are available live and for 24 hours afterwards and cost £4.99 to watch, with "80% of net proceeds" going direct to the artists, which I hope might mean they receive something worthwhile, rather than the price of a pizza for 6 million streams.

On the one hand, streaming is great, with the potential for truly globalised audiences. But on the other hand, it's tragic. The performances I've enjoyed watching the most during this time are those previously filmed in packed venues with cheering audiences throwing flowers on stage at the end. I am listening to various livestreams, or catching up on them afterwards, but there's a cracking noise that interferes and it's my heart. I shall keep listening, in the hope that somehow or other I will get used to it...

The empty shell of a theatre or hall turns out to be a poor substitute for one that is alive with coughs, sweet paper rustles, chattering, shushing, canoodling and clapping between movements. Who knew: all those things so many people loved to hate and to mouth off about in fury on social media are in fact the very lifeblood of a concert hall.

It is better than nothing, but it has got to be a temporary, not a permanent solution. Whatever you do, don't start thinking of this as that blood-curdling concept "new normal". There is nothing normal about any of it and nor should there be. This is the thin end of a very wobbly wedge. It's as welcome as can be, because it keeps those stages, those artists and that music pulsing along in our lives and hearts. We need music in our lives. But those stages and those artists and that music, with composers hard at work, need us, too. There in person. Showing we love it. Supporting them.

In order to show that love and support, I'll include in postings, wherever possible, a performance from Youtube for you to enjoy. Today's is Imogen Cooper's 70th birthday concert from the Wigmore Hall, given last autumn.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Pianophiles, do not miss this one...

The legendary Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov has been filmed in recital for the first time in ten years, at the Berlin Philharmonie. The concert, including impromptus and Klavierstücke by Schubert and the Beethoven 'Hammerklavier' Sonata, is available to watch exclusively on starting from today.

Above, a taster: sounds like it is not exactly your average piano recital. But it wouldn't be and couldn't be. Sokolov is occasionally compared to his mentor, Gilels - but in fact he is a one-off. I've never heard an artist like him, before or since, and as he won't come to Britain because of our crazy requirements for a working visa (after all, why should he bother coming here when he can go elsewhere more easily?) this chance to see him in action is valuable indeed.

Monday, January 13, 2014

My top ten wishes for music in the new year

1. Re performers, I wish we might see the return to these shores of the pianists Grigory Sokolov, Krystian Zimerman, Martha Argerich and Menahem Pressler.

2. Re audiences, I wish for the principle to be established that you have a responsibility to consider other people as well as yourself - you may have bought a ticket, but so have they. Therefore during the concert you don't talk, you switch off all functions of your phone and you - er - listen to the music.

3. Re orchestras and other ensembles, I wish that those who depend on their local councils for life-giving tranches of funding could find alternative sources, fast. I fear they will need them. Here is the first of what will be many such problems: the BBC Philharmonic's grant is being slashed by Salford Council, which - shamefully - is also ending its contribution to music and performing arts in schools, according to this report from the Manchester Evening News.

4. Re programming, I wish for scope, breadth and depth. I am sick of pianists in particular programming same old same old. Do you know how much piano repertoire there is? More than any of us could possibly read through in one lifetime. So no more Schumann Etudes Symphoniques; why not Gesange der Fruhe? And enough of the last three Schubert sonatas; why not the G major or the big D major instead, or, if you can face its challenges, the "little" A minor? This could go on, but you get my drift.

5. I also wish for plenty of Andrzej Panufnik, whose centenary falls this year. He is a neglected master and he's due for a big-time return to the concert hall. Watch this space for further details of the centenary plans so far. At least there's a good chance of this wish being fulfilled.

6. I wish that Sir Simon Rattle would confirm or deny, definitively, whether or not he is coming to head the LSO. Preferably the former.

7. An end to witch-hunting and bullying in all its forms. The notion that a composer/performer/any individual who does something artistic/creative/literary/etc should be judged in that activity first by his/her personal beliefs/sayings/doings in matters of religion/sex/politics/etc is insidious and daft.

8. I wish that along with endeavouring to increase levels of sponsorship, membership, Friends schemes etc, there could be an increased sense of responsibility to those who can't afford to be among them. Venues exist that sell out to their members before anyone else gets a look in. Some of those venues keep day seats for which you can queue. Those that don't currently do this should start. The ones that already do should keep more day seats.

9. I wish that some doughty, important and fearless conductor would decide that it is OK to perform Mozart operas with a bit of vibrato and an orchestra that's non-microscopic in size.

10. Last but by no means least, I wish for the realisation of my dream of an awards ceremony to celebrate and raise the profile of the great achievements of women in music. And I'm sure Fanny Mendelssohn (right) would approve.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Sokolov plays Brahms, Prokofiev, Chopin and Rameau

Since Grigory Sokolov is not playing in Britain any time soon, and some people on our island appear never to have heard of Youtube, here is a little selection from his recitals. Perhaps he is a "pianist's pianist" or something, but I know of few pianophiles, pianists and serious fans who wouldn't go rushing to hear this man play anything he chose to play, anywhere, any time. The only other living pianists I'd mention in the same breath as him are Martha Argerich and Krystian Zimerman.

I was fortunate to interview him in 2006, in Barcelona, around midnight after an extraordinary recital. The article (for International Piano) is in my archive, here.

Brahms, live in Venice a couple of weeks ago:

Prokofiev Sonata No.7, 3rd movement 'Precipitato'

 Chopin Polonaise-Fantaisie, from Amsterdam 2005 (audio only)

Rameau, 'La Poule'

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Gone Chopin, Bach in a minuet, but without Clawed Depussy

I was once doing a talk and someone asked me whether there was any music I used to love that I had "gone off". The answer was twofold. First, mostly it's the opposite. There's plenty of music that I'd never "got", but that I'd either learned to love or suddenly found that I may have loved all along. Bartok, for instance, or Ligeti - and, this year, Boulez and Bernd Alois Zimmermann. Secondly: no, I've never gone off Korngold, if that's what you meant.

But now I've made a startling discovery. I am going off someone. I have no idea why. It's not because it's his anniversary year and he's had overkill - because he hasn't. I've always adored him. I've played heaps of his piano music and always found it astonishing. Now, though, I'm back at my piano after a long break, looking for something to learn that demands the attention of intensively applied blood, sweat and tears. And I got out my book of Debussy to play through some pieces I learned as a student - Estampes, Suite bergamasque, Images II - and I just couldn't get into it. Not at all.

I'm horrified. These were my party-pieces. I love Claude to bits, or I'm supposed to. And now - ? Pagodes and its Chinoiserie left me cold and flat and wondering why I bothered. The Spanish thing, which when I was 20 seemed the sexiest work evah, feels contrived. Suite bergamasque - well, a tad pointless, and in places, especially the first movement, not even terribly good: as if he's boxed himself into a corner, or just wants to irritate us with a spot of fancy fingering. Sensual, yes, in a superficial kind of way. But the emotional depth has, it seems, gone AWOL. 

La Mer is another matter, especially with Rattle conducting. L'apres-midi d'un faun remains magical - I hope. Jeux is sophisticated and impressive, the Nocturnes for orchestra likewise. And I respect Pelleas with doffed Symbolist hat. But the piano book is going back in the cupboard. Been there, done that, passed the exams.

Because, when you hold Debussy's piano music up beside Chopin's, there's no comparison.

I've been bashing, very badly, through the Polonaise-Fantasie (that Trifonov video was quite a spur). It leaves me more astonished every time. What is he doing? You want to take it to pieces to see how it works. What are these key relationships, these bizarre harmonies - A sharp? C flat? - and the little motivic connections that rise from nowhere to weave the substance together? What is this strange history he spreads before us? Was that harp-ripple the shape and size of Chopin's own hand? What is this brief song of the angel of death in the middle, appearing as if from nowhere?

It's a page-turner plot, a great fantastical dream-journey, full of revelations, reappraisals of its own material, thoughts, questions and breaththrough answers that carry you further in terms of emotional development than you'd ever imagined you could go in a mere 12-15 minutes (depending who's playing...) [UPDATE: Cortot takes less - just under 10 mins - but some of it is a car wreck]. It's uncomfortable every moment of the way, such is its self-awareness and its intimations of its own mortal danger. It's strong in its acknowledgement of human fragility and the simultaneous ability to light up the sky. The composer, the pianist and the instrument become one to an almost terrifying degree.

I won't be able to play it properly in a month of Sundays. But I would gladly die trying.

Clawed Depussy remains Solticat's favourite composer, of course, along with Gabriel Furry and Darius Milhauw.

Here is the ultimate Polonaise-Fantasie, from Grigory Sokolov.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Having a break...

I've done my hand in through excessive hattogate surfing. Not a good idea, especially with lots of deadlines to meet. So I need to stop all unnecessary typing for a while and make sure I don't end up with RSI. I'll be taking a week or so off blogging as from now... it seems like a good time to show you the following: a good example of the utterly staggering piano genius that is Grigory Sokolov!

Sunday, October 08, 2006


My article for International Piano about Grigory Sokolov is now available to read on my permasite. Click here.

Anyone who remembers me writing a few months back that I had just done an interview with someone who may be the world's greatest pianist will now know what I was talking about. I went over to Barcelona to hear and meet him back in March, in company with a valiant Russian cellist as interpreter; we heard a most stunning recital at the Palau de la Musica, interviewed the great man after his concert - around midnight - and even found ourselves having breakfast with him in the hotel the next morning. Sokolov's performances have been among the greatest revelations of my musical life. And I've had a few. Read on...

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