Wednesday, May 17, 2017

All Roads Lead to Bologna

I just got back last night from my whirlwind visit to Bologna to see the Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov in concert. I wasn't quite believing it was actually going to happen until he walked on stage. I have been an admirer of his consummate musicianship for about a decade now, ever since a Polish conductor simply insisted I listen to him. I keep telling that story, but it's true! Sokolov, despite his towering over other pianists both musically and technically, is not well known, especially outside Europe. He quit touring in places like the UK and the US since the imposition of what he considers onerous visa requirements. A number of years ago he quit playing concertos with orchestra, from what I gather because of the frequent unpredictability of the results. So now he just plays solo concerts on the European continent, as well as they could possibly be played. As I mentioned a few days ago, Deutsche Grammophon is now beginning to release a number of recordings of his concerts, which will help a lot more of us to get to know Sokolov's work.

As I was going to be in Spain for a month, I checked his concert schedule and saw he was playing in Bologna on the 15th. After some frustrations, no online sales, concert sold out, that sort of thing, I reached one of the people in the concert office and she set aside a ticket for me. I flew in on Monday and lo and behold, there actually was a ticket set aside for me. I had no idea where the seat would be. Christina from the office said it was "first stall" but I didn't know what that meant. It turned out to be in the 7th row, on the floor! A wonderfully good ticket. Mind you, it was on the right, so I couldn't see his hands, but no problem, I've seen hands before. Here are some photos. First of all, the restless crowd at the doors, guarded by fashionable Italian security, waiting to get in:

Here is a shot of the interior. Good sized hall with three balconies, probably seating about a thousand people:

More of the balconies:

Most of the shots I got inside were poor because of the low light and I didn't take any while he was playing as they asked us not to. Before the concert a fellow from Steinway concert service (I didn't know they even existed, but they had a van outside) was tuning the piano and he came back at intermission to fine tune it again:

They may have even brought a special piano with someone to look after it in the big van. That would not surprise me. Oh, and the photo above was taken from my row, so you can see how close I was.

The concert was sold out:

The presenters were Musica Insieme and this was their 30th season. The first half was all Mozart with the Sonata No. 16 in C major, Kv. 545 followed by the Fantasia in C minor, Kv. 475 and the Sonata in C minor, Kv. 457. The arrangement of the program suggested that there would be a pause between the first sonata and the fantasia as there were timings on the right side and there was a duration for the sonata and then a separate duration for the fantasia and sonata together. But, as in the film of his Paris concert, where the first half was three Beethoven sonatas, he played the whole first half without a pause. There wasn't a hint of anyone starting to clap at any point until he stood up. He also played the whole second half without a pause.

This is an interesting phenomenon, by the way. Why do people start clapping and why do they not? I knew a guitarist in Montreal who had the opportunity to play a concert in one of the larger venues there. He played the Lute Suite No. 4 by Bach among other things and was cursed with applause after every single movement! I believe the problem was his body language. At the end of every movement he would throw up his right hand, a kind of habitual gesture. This signalled the audience to applaud. What Sokolov does is to make no gesture of any kind at the end of a piece or movement. His focus remains tight and whole. He also does not make a fuss of the ending. Often the last note or chord is played piano and he simply waits out the duration, slightly moves his hands off the keyboard for perhaps ten seconds and then begins the next piece or movement.

Something I have never seen in a concert before, the applause was such after the first half that Sokolov had to come back and bow FOUR TIMES. The concert did not begin until about ten to 9 (scheduled for 8:30, but I will tell you why it started late in another place) and the second half did not begin until ten pm. The second half was simply two Beethoven sonatas, the Sonata No. 27 in E minor, op. 90 (in two movements) and the Sonata No. 32 in C minor, op. 111. This last sonata is one of the most astonishing ever written and the last Beethoven composed. Several years ago I devoted a whole post just to the last movement which is a tour-de-force on several levels. I suggest you give that post a read. The last movement is a set of variations, that start with a theme of sublime simplicity. But things soon become complex indeed. Because of the jaunty dotted rhythms, one of the variations sounds very much like jazz when most pianists play it. But not in the hands of Sokolov. It may have been a combination of his control of the dynamics together with him playing the rhythms and not allowing the rhythms to play him, but it didn't sound at all like jazz on this occasion.

By the time the second half ended, it was almost 11pm, but the concert was far from over. This audience knows, as all European ones must, that Sokolov can be persuaded to play encores and after coming back out and bowing three or four times he did so. Including the encores, the concert wasn't ended until 11:30 or so. Here is a list (I was only sure of a few of these, but someone recorded his recent recital in Rome, where he played the same encores, so I was able to fill out the list with help from that recording):
  1. Franz Schubert, Moment Musical Op.94 (D.780), No.1 in C major (Moderato)
  2. Frédéric Chopin, Nocturne in B major, Op. 32, No. 1
  3. Nocturne in A-flat major, Op. 32, No. 2
  4. Jean-Philippe Rameau. Pièces de clavecin en concert (Quatrième concert): "L'indiscrète"
  5. Robert Schumann. Arabesque in C major, Op.18
  6. Frédéric Chopin, Prelude Op. 28, No. 20, in C minor
Yes, that's right, six encores. I have only twice seen more encores in a concert. Here is a photo of him bowing after one of the encores. Sorry about the quality!

It is hard to know what to say about this concert. It was, just as expected, an astonishing level of musicianship delivered with a peerless technical assurance. And a rebuke to all those pianists who walk out and pound away on the instrument. Sokolov can play loud passages, but they are rationed out for when they are really needed. Much of the time he plays with a transparent and finely graded dynamic and sometimes he shades a phrase into a very soft dynamic. This is what a great musician does, of course. The sense, overall, is that he is inside every note, every harmony, every rhythm and he knows where every phrase is going. This sounds like something everyone does, but you might be surprised. A lot of musicians play more or less mechanically, that is, they let the music play them rather than them play the music. You can let yourself be carried along in the flow and, sure, it will work out ok. But it will not be great musicianship. I'm not sure if I have ever heard anyone play music with such total engagement. I was talking about a concert a few days ago and saying how I would have liked to hear more articulation in the phrases. Well, in a Sokolov concert you can basically marvel at what he does with every phrase. Oh, and Sokolov has the best trills I have ever heard.

There is a very short list of concerts I have attended that go into the "Great Masters" category:

  • Arthur Rubinstein, piano, Alicante, Spain, 1974, program included Bach-Busoni Chaconne and a lot of Chopin
  • Andrés Segovia, guitar, Place des Arts, Montréal, 1976, program included Sor, Sonata op 22 and a lot of Albéniz (eight encores!)
  • Nigel Rogers, singer, the one who rediscovered how to do those complex vocal ornaments in early 17th century monody, McGill University, Montréal, 1977 (seven encores!)
  • John Williams, guitar, Toronto, 1978, program included a lot of Albéniz and the premiere of a Brouwer guitar concerto, conducted by the composer (they had to repeat the middle movement of the concerto!)
  • Alban Berg Quartet, Salzburg, Austria, 1988, program of Beethoven string quartets
  • McGill Symphony, Montréal, 1996, program included Shostakovich, Symphony No. 7
  • Grigory Sokolov, Bologna, 2017, program included Mozart and Beethoven sonatas (six encores!)
And that's pretty much it. Sure, I have heard a lot of pretty darn good concerts, and perhaps have given a couple myself, but the only ones I have heard that were truly masterful, were these ones. (The odd man out is the McGill Symphony concert and they did a fine job, but they really made the list because of the composition. You have to hear this live in concert because I don't think there is any recording technology that can really capture the range of sound between, at one extremity, one snare drum played very quietly and, at the other, the whole orchestra playing as loudly as they can with six sets of tympani, six trumpets, six trombones and everyone else augmented accordingly. The first movement has an eleven minute crescendo that has to be heard to be believed.)

With apologies to, well, pretty much everyone, but especially Grigory Sokolov, I append this poor recording of the first Mozart sonata from the concert, made by someone who attended the Rome concert on this tour. The quality of the recording is such that you will just get a vague idea and perhaps you should not listen, but it might give you some idea of the concert, much like the shadows on the walls of Plato's cave, hint at reality:


Craig said...

What a great experience this must have been for you. Thanks very much for telling us about it.

I've heard Beethoven's Sonata 32 in concert only once; it was played by Marc-Andre Hamelin. It was a very memorable night, but I would dearly love to hear Sokolov play it!

Bryan Townsend said...

I am so ashamed to say that I have not heard M. Hamelin in concert (perhaps once in a new music concert a very long time ago in Montreal, but I am not certain it was he). Thanks for the comment!

Marc Puckett said...

Happy to see that the concert was as wonderful as you expected it to be!

As for the piano tuning, my recollection is that Steinway will assign a tuner to important artists to perform this service. I remember this from an article in the NYT that profiled a specific individual who had done such work for many years and was perhaps nearing retirement? or had retired but continued to work for a specific artist or artists? Unfortunately I cannot remember the tuner's name and haven't found the article in a quick search of the Times's archive; doubtless will turn up eventually but am not spending the time just now.

Bryan Townsend said...

As I get older, I notice a couple of things. One is that even a great concert does not impact me the way it would have when I was young. Listening is a more complex activity for me now and I am less easily impressed. That being said, listening to Grigory Sokolov is a rare privilege. If you look at my list of "great masters" concerts, you will see that they were spaced much closer together when I was younger. Then every two or three years, now every couple of decades or so!

The other thing I notice is that if I hear really good playing it starts to get me thinking about my own composition--and that indeed happened with Sokolov. I had a whole new idea for a piece I am working on.