Düsseldorf 2003

I've been there yesterday and I have to say it was really fabulous. It was the first time I saw Sokolov live in concert, although I have already listened to a fair quantity of his CDs and radio broadcasts. The concert hall in Duesseldorf wasn't sold out (as it had been with the previous concert given by Kissin), but it was clear that the people that went to this concert were music-lovers rather than event-goers. They were unusually disciplined and quiet throughout the recital and aside from one cell-phone ringing (it was silenced quickly) and one hearing-aid beeping in the first minutes nothing disturbed the recital.

Sokolov opened it with the Bach sonata after Reincke (BWV 965), a work that is quite rarely played in concerts and that I did not know before. From the beginning Sokolov made it clear that for him, playing Bach on a Steinway concert grand is the obvious thing to do nowadays. He certainly made use of the whole dynamical range, from pianissimo to triple fortissimo, using both pedals to create
different sound effects as he desired them. On the whole, it seemed to me that it worked pretty well, even if Bach-purists (and I imagine there are some of them, especially here in Germany) may object it
sometimes sounded rather like a Busoni or Bach transcription. But the way he played it, bringing his clear and precise yet never harsh touch to the fore, it created a whole new world of sound, with the
contrapuntal lines weaving into each other and beautifully constructed climaxes. The technical side was impressive as well - the way he never lost control, even in the midst of the most furious presto-passages, was really amazing. All in all, his playing had an intensity, a kind of furious concentration and obvious dedication to every note he played which could leave no listener untouched.

I liked the following Bach/Brahms - Chaconne for the left hand alone a bit less, maybe because I've grown very fond of the Bach/Busoni-transcription for two hands; compared to this, the Brahms version for one hand sounded thin, with the cathedral-like majesty of the Busoni piece missing. Nevertheless it was interesting to see that even the rather skeletal frame of this piece still held a unique quality, and Sokolov made the best out of it with one hand, following the melodical line more seamlessly than others do with both hands together.

After the intermission followed three Beethoven sonatas: the two from op. 14 and the op. 28, called "Pastorale". Again, the sincerity and emotional involvement of Sokolov were impressive, and to my ears he conveyed very much the spirit of Beethoven - one could almost believe that the composer would have played that way himself. Singing, cantabile-like melodies in the slow movements, extensive manipulating of dynamical differences - although those were sometimes brought to extremes, but it always sounded natural, convincing, never artificially harsh or displaying virtuosity just for its own sake. The simple opening of the op. 14/2-sonata was varied along the first movement and changed colours every few bars; especially the last movement of this sonata was impressive, played with crystal clarity and a temperament that conveyed Beethoven's sometimes furious temper very well. - The "Pastoral" - sonata that ended the recital began in just the right mood and made allusions to his 6th symphony, at least in the first movement. Sokolov's emotional involvement was obvious, as well as that he apparently knew exactly how he wanted everything to sound like: One always got the impression that, like a painter, he had the whole picture in his head and just filled it out quite naturally, just as there was no other way to do it. Even if it may not be everyone's way to play Beethoven - some may favor a more innocent approach like Richard Goode's or something more intellectual like Brendel's - I found it shed a brilliant light on many subtle details, illuminating everything without pointing it out too obviously.

The audience rewarded this exceptional performance with enthusiastic applause, and ovations that are - at least in Duesseldorf - rather unusual. By the way - to me Sokolov on the stage looked a bit like a goblin (not a malicious one, of course, rather a good-natured one, even if he never smiled) or a somewhat strange old wizard. - All in all, the audience was clapping away furiously, and was rewarded by five (!) encores: First of all Couperin's tic-toc-choc, then Ravel's Toccata from the Tombeau de Couperin (a rather humorous choice of playing those two in a row), followed by a piece I couldn't identify but which may have been something by Rameau or Froberger, and at the end two Chopin Mazurkas. Especially the Ravel Toccata was awe-inspiring - he should play the whole Tombeau once in a while. In resumé, a memorable evening - and a program sincerely recommended
to everyone who is near where Sokolov plays. Go watch him - you won't be disappointed!