Saturday, August 19, 2017

Alex Ross Perplexed by Sokolov

As readers know, I am a big fan of the Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov, about whom I have written quite a few posts. I also had the opportunity to hear him in Bologna in May in concert, which was quite an experience. He plays the same program for a whole season, so it was the same pieces that Alex Ross heard him play in Salzburg on August 1st. I linked to his piece on the Salzburg Festival in yesterday's miscellanea, but just now got a chance to savor his comments:
A cultish, worshipful atmosphere can prevail in Salzburg, to sometimes irritating effect. A case in point was an evening of Mozart and Beethoven sonatas with the enigmatic Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov, who avoids travel to the United States but has an avid European following. He has an extraordinarily sensitive touch, and specializes in the surgical separation and articulation of voices: when he plays a crisp, marcato line with his left hand and a flowing legato with his right, the parts are so distinct that it sounds as though two different people were at the instrument. He is also deeply eccentric. His accounts of Mozart’s Sonata in C, K. 545, and the Fantasia and Sonata in C Minor, rendered without pause, veered from porcelain prettiness to turbulent Romantic gesturing and back again, neither manner suitable to the music at hand. In Beethoven’s Opus 111, Sokolov’s interpretive meanderings matched the saturnine magnificence of the score: endless even-toned trills and ethereal figuration cast a spell. Still, a humorless self-indulgence prevailed. The crowd roared and stamped; I went away perplexed.
This is delightful, isn't it? Alex Ross really is a creature of his environment, Manhattan's Upper West Side, the world view of which was captured in this New Yorker cover, years ago:

 

Imagine if the artist had been looking East instead and how foreshortened Europe would have been. That's the sense I get from this phrase in the review:
Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov, who avoids travel to the United States but has an avid European following.
Norman Lebrecht expressed similar misgivings about a pianist who simply does not give concerts in the UK: after all, how good could he be? Well, good enough to pack halls in Europe. As a bit of a corrective, here is a quote from a review by Geoffrey Norris in The Telegraph:
An enigma in his lifetime, the Russian-born pianist Grigory Sokolov restricts his recitals to about 60 a year, refuses to make studio recordings and, for the past seven years or so, has declined to play in the UK. He used to but then withdrew from appearances here in 2008 when new requirements were introduced for Russian citizens seeking entry visas. It sparked a furore, but the stand-off continues.
To experience him in concert, therefore, you have to be on mainland Europe – no loss to Sokolov when he can draw capacity crowds to the Leipzig Gewandhaus, the Berlin Philharmonie or the Vienna Konzerthaus.
 As Ross seems to have only the vaguest idea of with whom he is dealing, let me fill in the picture a bit. Grigory Sokolov is a very great artist and pianist in the Russian tradition. He won first prize in the Tchaikovsky competition in 1966 at age sixteen--the head of the jury was Emil Gilels. Here they are in a photo taken at the time with Mischa Dichter on the left:


Since then he has pursued a career in which his devotion to the art has completely overshadowed any desire for fame or commercial endorsement, which is why so many music lovers do not know him. In Europe, however, he gives a tour every year to packed halls. He refuses to do studio recordings as he sees his art as that of the live performance. After many years of being perplexed by this, one record company, Deutsche Grammophon, has given in and begun releasing CDs of his recitals. He is an astonishing performer. I have one recording, of the Bach Art of Fugue recorded live in St. Petersburg around 1980, that is absolutely transcendent.

So when I read that Ross thinks that Sokolov's performance:
veered from porcelain prettiness to turbulent Romantic gesturing and back again, neither manner suitable to the music at hand
I suspect he just doesn't get out enough and is unfamiliar with the idea of expressive interpretation. Indeed, he seems much more in tune with the young Chinese pianist, Yuja Wang, whom he reviewed like this:
The program, under the direction of the striking young Estonian conductor Anu Tali, consisted of Niels Gade's Hamlet Overture, Grieg's Piano Concerto, and Sibelius' Fifth. I'll save the Sibelius for an upcoming New Yorker column and comment briefly on the Grieg. Yuja Wang was the soloist; I knew her from Leon Fleisher's Carnegie Hall workshops, which I wrote about last year. Then, I was gripped by her playing, though I felt she hadn't fully grasped Schubert's language. She has certainly mastered Grieg's. She gets a huge sound out of the piano, which isn't surprising from a well-traveled young prodigy. What's more impressive is that she plays in big paragraphs, shows a powerful grasp of structure, brings delicate fantasy to lyric passages.
To my mind, Yuja Wang rather resembles a music box with legs:



Grigory Sokolov, on the other hand has a different relationship with the notes:


Unfair, apples to oranges? Well, sure. Just making a point here. On Sokolov's Beethoven, Ross has this to say:
Sokolov’s interpretive meanderings matched the saturnine magnificence of the score: endless even-toned trills and ethereal figuration cast a spell. Still, a humorless self-indulgence prevailed. The crowd roared and stamped; I went away perplexed.
 A humorless self-indulgence? You know, I would be just a tiny bit sympathetic with Ross' view if he had a shred of evidence to back it up. Which he doesn't. So, a pox on your house, Alex. You really should get out more. I think that endless string of Julliard note-spinners has dulled your ear.

Here is another quote from Norris' review in The Telegraph:
As is so often the case with the greatest musicians, it is hard, and perhaps not always desirable or essential, to analyse what makes them great. It is simply a fact that, listening to Sokolov, you know unequivocally that you are in the presence of someone extraordinary, someone possessing special insights and a thoroughly individual way of articulating, clarifying and communing with music so that his interpretations seem to find its very heart.
Yep, that's pretty much it.

4 comments:

Will Wilkin said...

A seasoned reader knows how to sift through a text to detect opinion from information. I never cared much for critics because I can hear, read and see for myself anyway. But critics can still be useful as givers of context of the work being criticized, to the extent that context even matters. The more the art recedes in time, the less relevant I find the context, as any enduring work must stand on its own, conveying an aesthetic and spiritual dimension independent of any temporal circumstance.

So let Mr. Ross write whatever he wants, for his ideas matter not a whit to me. I know my own experience will always mean more to me than his criticism, however much more formal learning and experience he may or may not have. In the end, I see critics of any sort as mostly parasitic, making a career by subjectively reflecting filtered glimpses of the brilliance of artists and other geniuses whose work I am prepared to experience directly and judge for myself.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think different critics take different approaches. Most today just offer up their own eccentricities or pander to their readers. A good critic, I think, will always transmit actual knowledge about the artwork and therefore be worth reading.

Anonymous said...

Your link to Sokolov's performance of the G-flat Impromptu has some stiff competition: recordings by Lipatti, Rubinstein, and Horowitz - just to name the ones that come immediately to mind. While it's excellent playing, I don't find Sokolov's rendition to be at all revelatory or worthy of the hype. Maybe there are other, extra-musical reasons people find his concerts so compelling? Like Alex Ross, I'm a bit perplexed.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, for sure. But if I were to say that Sokolov is the greatest living pianist that I know of, that wouldn't contradict your claim as
Dinu Lipatti, Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz are all deceased!

What do you think of Sokolov's Rameau, or Beethoven?