Grigory Sokolov, Piano: Chopin, B-Flat Minor Sonata, Preludes, and Op. 25 Etudes

Sokolov pic

I have often heard the pianism of Grigory Sokolov recommended as an antidote to  the barn-storming circus antics of the likes of Lang Lang, Evgeny Kissin, and Ivo Pogorelich. Many see him as a great expressionist as well as a musician who puts poetry and structure before technique. Given the corpulent Russian's discography, it's easy to see why. In addition to a healthy dose of Chopinmusic that any serious professional pianist is expected to study thoroughly and recordthe canonical works of the "three B" Germans feature prominently: Bach's Italian Concerto, Goldberg Variations, and Well-Tempered Clavier; Beethoven's sonatas and Diabelli variations; and Brahms's sonatas and late piano works. If such apparent intellectual posing impressed me, I'd be willing to join the throngs who have raised him up on a pedestal as the paragon of a Russian musician's musician, one who "puts the music and composer's intentions above his own personality." But music is music; players have their own personalities and take on the music; and, as the great Hungarian pianist Gyorgy Sandor put it, "If one can play in one style well, one can play in any style well." That's because of artistic talent. Sure, Sokolov can wag his fingers and churn out the notes at certain times. At other times, he can act musical by making grotesque rhythmic gestures, slowing down whenever he feels like it, and pounding to get his standing ovation. But poses are just thatposes. Any charlatan who's skilled enough can pose. Forgers can artfully re-create fragments of the frescos in the Sistine Chapel. And pianists like Sokolov can flail away at and moon over Chopin as they've done in practice rooms since the instrument's time immemorial. Listening in full to the two CDs in this set, featuring some of the Polish piano poet's greatest works, I felt as one of those Guantanomo military prisoners might feel, tortured by being submerged in water save my head: to write a review, I was compelled to listen to Sokolov's purposeless music-making to the end; there was no escape.

Ironically, his playing of the Chopin B-flat minor sonata started off quite well before rapidly degenerating. The brief grave introduction could have had more grandeur, sounding ponderous instead of noble, but the beginning of the doppio movimento had a quicksilver fire to it and was relatively well-balanced. Imagine my surprise, then, when, as the music became more intense, balance became the fundamental problem that would almost universally plague the rest of the performances on the disc. That and tempo. In the forte passages containing the widely spaced bass figurations, all I could hear was crude, thick texture with little differentiation. Then, in the transition to the tender melody, he jabs out the staccato chords too forcefully. The melody itself (beginning in bar 41) is suddenly way out of his original tempo and is limp, containing little phrasing to convey the foreshadowing of passion that the crescendo marks call for. Nobody would mind a healthy degree of rubato or expression hereor a modicum of speed slackeningbut to slow the overall tempo down so grossly robs the music of the tension that Chopin had built from the outset. Not to mention that there's no indication whatsoever of any such shift in Chopin's markings (only sostenuto, which is not an indication of tempo but of legato sustainment of sound). The chordal triplets that ensue in bar 81 jerkily increase the tempo again and sound prissy rather than exciting before he clumsily sledgehammers his way into the development (after subjecting us to the sonata's repeat). The development is more of the same, as you start wondering whether this man is even capable of holding a tempo at all. 

The second-movement scherzo illustrates some of the same problems, with the addition of over-lush pedalling that mires Chopin's pointed staccati in mud. Granted, he does reflect some of Chopin's dynamic markings here, but that can't compensate for a leaden touch and a nonexistent tempo. And he has nothing original to say with the dynamics anyway; it's all predictably studied. He slows way down in the soft segue (beginning bar 12) back to theme A, which is even more irritating in the context of a tempo that's torpid to begin with. His staccati in the passages in fourths and octaves stick to the keys rather than bounce off them, and what he mainly seems to care about is calculatingly reducing speed so that he can grab every note. (Witness the gross near-pause in bar 28.) All of this results in a movement that proceeds in fits and starts. In the più lento middle section, the sound is attempting to be pretty, but I hear nothing out of the ordinary, and he displays this nauseating modern habit of rhythmically pumping the tops of phrases, simultaneously forgetting to provide any dynamic interest. It's all too bad because this is my favorite movement in the sonatait's so menacing, almost trollish or fantastic. For varying interpretations of how this could be played, listen to Horowitz's wonderfully grotesque approach or Rachmaninoff's elfin-light classical rendering.

As for the third-movement funeral march, doubtless one of the most famous classical pieces ever written, I'll start by admitting that at this point it's going to take an otherworldly performance to convince me. Cortot's and Friedman's magical interpretations have done so (interestingly, Friedman only recorded the latter two movements of this sonata), but I've heard countless students trudge through this as I have countless professionals find it so easy that they don't know what to do with it. Musically, Sokolov is about as slogging as they come. His performance isn't a march, or even a slow walk; it's more like a slug oozing along. Yes, it's lento, but tempos are relatives. This is so slow it could make you want to scratch every orifice at once in the hope of putting more motion in your listening experience. The dotted rhythms are heavy-handed and give the impression of being slightly behind the beat (such a slow tempo makes it hard to even perceive them as dotted rhythms). And dynamically, it's tensionless when it's softno portentousness or sense of dreadand crude and bludgeoning when it's loud. Not to mention the rambling-sounding bass trills and blurred pedal changes. Then, something I could not believe, he plays the dreamy middle section faster! Well yes, of course he does, because it's more the right tempo. But why he didn't see that from the outset is beyond me: I guess he doesn't understand that this remains a march throughout, regardless of mood or section changes, and thus needs an overall consistent tempo to avoid its structure falling. Again, a little restraint might be in order to denote a section shift, but if Chopin had wanted such a drastically different tempo, he would have marked it, and he didn't. It's musically tepid anyway. He plays the notes softly enough but with little line. To hear what this could sound likeI see it as a child in the procession-watching crowd reflecting on the meaning of death but not yet comprehending ittreat yourself to Horowitz or Cortot.

Admittedly, he surprised me in the hyper-difficult presto finale. It's more notey than Cortot's or Rachmaninoff's, and could be lighter, but this is the one performance on the entire set that impressed me, technically at least. Did he achieve what Huneker described as the "wind over an unquiet grave"? No, I wouldn't go that far. For one thing, his prevailing dynamic level is more of a mezzo-piano than the sotto voce Chopin asks for. For another thing, in many places I'm hearing more of the ping of piano hammers and the regularity of triplets than the overall ghostly effect. (Perhaps he could have made it easier on himself by using the una corda pedal; it doesn't sound like he is, but the achievement of sotto voce often demands this.) Yet at least he sounds in command and shows little sign of struggling against the music as in the other movements.

If only I could say the same thing about his preludes or op. 25 etudes. There are so many things wrong with the preludes that either don't make sense or are musically awkward that one doesn't even know where to begin. But let me start by noting the gross slowing to almost a standstill in various places throughout most of the slower preludes, particularly an annoyingly insistent habit of pulling in and parking at the conclusion of the more extended slower preludes, such as 13, 15, 17, and 21. By all means, one should often do a poco ritardando for endings and sometimes a bit more so when the musical expression calls for it, but his frequent molto, molto ritenuto has the uncommon effect of being both tedious and maddening. He also bangs out accompaniments something awful in preludes 2 and 4; sloppily smears the pedal in 6, 7, and parts of 15; and pokes out chords but hears little melodic intent in 9. The fast ones run the gamut from disjointed and inaccurate rhythm in 10 (note the sloppy dotted rhythms and tempo change in the sections of sixths that interrupt the righthand passagework); to gross rhythmic distortion in 12, particularly on the thirds on the second page, where he's altering the tempo almost from one measure to the next; to flabbiness and overgenerous pedaling through every measure in 16, where the scales and bass can only be clear if one pedals in dabs; to piledriver pounding in 14, 18, 20, 22, and 24, which indicate that he has little sense of what the word "accent" means, containing lots of crude volume but exhibiting little sense of pianistic orchestration; to a complete lack of balance and finger independence in 1 and 8. To compare two of the two most difficult preludes, No. 16 is merely predictable note-grabbing and mushy scale playing, but no. 24 is quite unbelievably crude, with its amorphous, almost unhearable bass. Not to mention a ridiculous pianissimo, not marked by Chopin, that he inserts toward the end, making his rendition of this martial, dramatic prelude lose any of the little intensity it had. Speaking of ridiculous, I should not forget his lugubriously slow No. 11, more of an adagio than a vivace; I suppose this is deemed "musical" by today's musical establishment, but I'd retort that such ill-advised mooning and wallowing in such a quick-spirited elegant work is anything but "musical." Likewise in 23, is this even vaguely a moderato? Sounds more to me like it's on the slow side of an andante. His reminds me of alluvial rainwater rather than a rippling brook. Nos. 3 and 19, oddly, do display some sense of balance between the right and left hands, but they're also often rounded off and contrived. Practically every time he changes a dynamic level he seems to have to change tempo along with it. And in 19, he jerkily speeds up about 25 seconds into it for no apparent reason.

The op. 25 etudes didn't irritate me quite as much (I don't know them quite as well) but are not really much better. In the interest of sounding a bit less curmudgeonly, I'll proceed by listing for each piece a better performance against which to compare Sokolov's:

  • No. 1: Cortot is unmatchable here, in rubato, voicing, and color; Sokolov doesn't begin to soar or get this off the ground.
  • No. 2: Try Cherkassky or Saperton, or even Novaes to see the more delicate effect of this piece and compare with Sokolov's notey rendering.
  • No. 3: Sofronitsky's is phenomenal technically, though perhaps too fast. As I remember, Byron Janis was surprisingly good on this. Even at their very different tempos, they get more of a sense of horse canter and gallop than Sokolov even begins to.
  • No. 4: I like Cziffra's devil-may-care flavor. He strikes a little too forcefully at those bass notes, but it's rhythmically and pianistically original in its gypsy-ish quality. Sokolov often mercilessly sinks his claws into the right-hand chords, but does nothing with the left hand, and it's all a big fat bore.
  • No. 5: Lipatti is elegant and sings, though he has less rubato interest than Cortot or Saperton. Interestingly, Horowitz also sounds poetic on this (in his last recording). With its dissonant slurrings, this piece is often called the "wrong-note" etude, and Sokolov's right-hand slobberings and uneven pedaling make his a wrong-interpretation performance.
  • No. 6: As in the last movement of the B-flat minor sonata, the technical challenge is such that he seems to come a bit more alive in this thirds etude, probably the most challenging such etude in the piano literature. But he also fails to elicit any caprice or will-o'-the-wisp quality, and sometimes the thirds could be clearer. Listen to Lhevinne for unnerving metronomic accuracy (and dynamic squalls); Friedman for overall orchestration; and Saperton for sheer lightness and technical panache. Those who want to be a bit more exotic might also try Jeanne-Marie Darré's admirably executed performance.
  • No. 7: I find Sokolov's performance of the "cello etude" a musical embarrassment, suffering from many of the same problems of phrase choppiness and interruption as his slower preludes. Horowitz, on the other hand, is his typical theatrical self but stays within the boundaries of good taste on this quasi-operatic piece, and his conception ultimately works.
  • No. 8: Starts off OK, but egad, what hammered sixths at the climax! Does Sokolov know the meaning of the word "elegance"? The usual suspects are  good on thisCortot, Saperton, even Richter (in one of his better etude performances). Another I like is Ashkenazy's, who interestingly defies Chopin's marking of fortissimo at the conclusion and plays piano instead (but this makes sense as an interesting contrast against the ardent crescendo of the chromatic scale leading into it).
  • No. 9: You won't hear butterflies in Sokolov's performance, only pesky gnats buzzing around your ears with monotonous regularity. The jaunty humor of Hoffman's will perhaps never be topped on this, though Saperton and Friedman are worthy competitors.
  • No. 10: Beyond the first few bars, Sokolov's octaves are almost inflectionless, nothing except buttloads of ugly, thick pounding. He then plays the middle section in such a schmaltzy, mannered way that it made me squirm in my seat to listen to it. Not a smidgeon of the masterful orchestration exhibited by Lhevinne or the accented fury and supple phrasing of Michael Ponti's. 
  • No. 11: If you're like me, you'll spend most of your listening time wondering why his right hand is totally overpowering his leftin short, why he misses the main musical point of the piece. Every note of the right hand is driven home so forcefully, I started to think I was being pecked at by a bird. Lhevinne's is famous, but in my opinion, a bit too reserved. Try Saperton's to hear the hissing of the winter wind in the right hand. Or, for sheer dramatic fire, there's always Samson François.
  • No. 12: Crude, crude, crude. Ugly, ugly, ugly. Notes, notes, notes. That about sums up Sokolov's version. Richter also pounds, but at least he sounds massive and forbidding like the ocean. Even better performances are by Ponti and Saperton.

Overall, in listening to the maladroit and uninspired performances on these discs, I think Sokolov's supporters are mistaking contrivance for sensitivity and affectations for good taste. While Sokolov's playing of Chopin isn't quite as colorless (or as senselessly hero-worshipped) as Rubinstein's, it's alike in that it has such obvious pretense to musicality while often failing to deliver the goods in basic technical or musical respects.

Joe's Grade: C      © Joseph Renouf 2012-2016