Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Sokolov plays late Schubert and late Beethoven

Grigory Sokolov: Schubert, Beethoven, Rameau, Brahms

Franz Schubert, Impromptus D899
Franz Schubert, Three Piano Pieces D946

Ludwig van Beethoven, Sonata No. 29 in B flat major (Hammerklavier)

Jean-Philippe Rameau, Les Tendres Plaintes
Jean-Philippe Rameau, Les Tourbillons
Jean-Philippe Rameau, Les Cyclopes
Jean-Philippe Rameau, La Follette
Jean-Philippe Rameau, Les Tendres Plaintes
Jean-Philippe Rameau, Les Sauvages

Johannes Brahms, Intermezzo in B flat minor op. 117 no. 2

Deutsche Grammophon 479 5426 (2 CDs)

Grigory Sokolov, the legendarily under-recorded genius of the piano, is now slightly less under-recorded. At the time of writing this double CD release of concert recordings from Warsaw and Salzburg brings the recorded repertoire to a grand total of 14 CDs and one DVD – a remarkably small tally for a pianist widely held to be one of the greatest living exponents of the keyboard, who won the Tchaikovsky Competition fifty years ago in 1966 at the age of 16. This set is the second release to emerge from Sokolov’s exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon. I think it’s safe to assume that the future holds a steady trickle of live performance releases. We should all be grateful to DG for bringing an end to the lean years.

The meat of these discs are classic Sokolov repertoire – late Beethoven and late Schubert. The Schubert pieces were recorded at Warsaw’s Philharmonia Naradowa on May 12, 2013 and the Beethoven at the Salzburg Festival on August 23 of the same year. The set is rounded by the six encores played at the Salzburg concert – five of Rameau’s Pièces de Clavecin, and then the second of Brahm’s Op. 117 Intermezzi.

The combination is surprisingly effective, and the encores are certainly not “lollipops”.  The nicely crafted five Rameau pieces provide a delightful counterpoint to the intense performances that precede them, and the beautifully played Brahms Intermezzo, a resigned and autumnal piece, is an excellent capstone to the set, as it must have been to the original concert at Salzburg.

Still, the recording will be justly celebrated for the Schubert and Beethoven performances. One of Sokolov’s most distinctive strengths at the piano (in addition, of course, to his technical mastery) is the depth and intensity that he brings to slow movements. So he is ideally suited to the melancholy lyricism of late Schubert. The D899 Impromptus are all very fine, with No. 1 particularly standing out – at Sokolov’s hands it stretches to over 10 minutes, without any moments of longeur or impressions of self-indulgence. For me, though, Sokolov is even more impressive in the Three Piano Pieces (D946), which he succeeds in making as deeply expressive as the famous last three piano sonatas.

The highlight of Melodiya’s 2014 release of Sokolov performing Beethoven, Scriabin, and Arapov (which I reviewed here) was a wonderful performance of Op. 111, Beethoven’s final piano sonata. That outstanding performance is matched by the Hammerklavier presented here. The slow movement in particular is spellbinding – better performances do not readily spring to mind. And while the Adagio Sostenuto is plainly the performance’s center of gravity, Sokolov maintains expressive balance across the other three movements.

The sound quality is as good as one would expect from Deutsche Grammophon (with a little audience noise for verisimilitude). My only reservation is that the liner notes are breathlessly sycophantic. Hopefully future releases from DG will have some analysis amid the hagiography. This is a relatively minor quibble and these two discs are highly recommended to all music-lovers.