Thursday, 6 December 2012

Sokolov - Rameau, Mozart, and Beethoven, 5 December 2012

Großer Saal, Konzerthaus, Vienna

Rameau – Suite in D minor/major, from Pièces de clavecin avec une méthode sur la méchanique des doigts
Mozart – Piano Sonata no.8 in A minor, KV 310/300d
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.29 in B-flat major, op.106, ‘Hammerklavier’

Grigory Sokolov (piano)
I shall start at the end, in order not to talk about the end. There is so much to say about this programme as advertised that almost the least extraordinary thing about it was Grigory Sokolov’s performance of no fewer than six encores, a 7.30 p.m. recital concluding more than three hours later. Furthermore, I shall resist the temptation even to name those encores – and not only because I have no idea what one of them was. For an Englishman, to hear Sokolov at all is a thing of wonder, New Labour’s visa regulations, perpetuated by the present government, meaning that he no longer performs in London or indeed anywhere else in our sceptr’d isle. Vienna, Paris, Rome, many other cities, yet not ours; this was therefore my first encounter with a pianist many consider to be one of the finest and certainly one of the most original alive.

There was something that one might justly call genius in his performance of Rameau’s D minor Suite, not just the finest performance I have heard of any of Rameau’s keyboard music, but the finest performance of any of his music I have yet to hear – and suspect that I ever will. ‘Les Tendres plaintes’, the first movement, perfectly set out Sokolov’s stall. Rameau’s decoration was both meaningful and delicate, allied to, indeed born of, a fine understanding of harmonic progression. (Those who treat the writer of the Traité de l’harmonie as an effete spinner of allegedly ‘stylish’ melodic inconsequentialities could not be further from the truth; alas that is how we almost hear him, especially in the age of ‘authenticity’.) A sturdy command of rhythm, including harmonic rhythm, characterised ‘Les Niais de Sologne’, which yet remained wonderfully catchy, as did its two doubles. Repeated notes offered a masterclass in the striking thereof – aided, admittedly, by the highly idiosyncratic regulation of Sokolov’s Steinway. Most impressive of all, however, throughout these three movements was the cumulative power achieved, again born as it necessarily must be of true harmonic understanding. ‘Les Soupirs’ provided languor that was both authentically – in the true sense – Ramellian and suggestive of the attraction of such music for Debussy and Ravel. Prélude à l’après-midi did not sound so very far away. Strength in the ‘ornaments’ showed them to be anything but merely ornamental; once again, cumulative power was ultimately the thing. (Unless, that is, one were to count the first of several mobile telephone interruptions to the night’s proceedings. Appalling!) Mesmerising digital dexterity, always at the service of the music, characterised ‘La Joyeuse’, which was followed by a declamatory reading of ‘La Follette’, rhetorical in a proper sense – as opposed to the inability to phrase that some seem to think qualifies as a virtue. ‘L’Entretien des Muses’ benefited likewise, with more than a hint of operatic drama. It emerged as the suite’s profound ‘black pearl’. ‘Les Tourbillons’ demonstrated beyond doubt Sokolov’s ability to forge continuity of line out of apparent discontinuity. Doubtless this was partly a matter of sheer happenstance, but I had been reading some remarks by Schoenberg on Mozart earlier in the day, and was reminded very much of them both here and in the performance of the subsequent Mozart sonata to which Schoenberg refers:

When I composed my Fourth String Quartet I said this time I must compose like Mozart does it, without looking at all whether I see relations or not, juxtaposing ideas. This principle I had conceived before, but this time I went very straight with this. And this is what Mozart does; in the middle of a theme he will interrupt or abandon his motifs and juxtapose new thematic formulations. We have it so clearly in the A minor [piano sonata]. The characteristic for Mozart is this interruption, I would not be sure to contend that this is a higher or a more primitive technique [than Beethoven, inter alia]. It is difficult to evaluate this aesthetically. I think it derived from his dramatic technique.

A sense of drama and once again of dramatically-forged continuity was to the fore in 'Les Cyclopes'. The delicately grave beauty of 'Le Lardon' gave way to superbly judged harmonic progression in the closing 'La Boîteuse'. Married to appreciation of a truly outstanding performance was the sad realisation of how poorly served Rameau has been by performers who fail to appreciate that harmonic understanding is just as important in his music as in that of Mozart and Beethoven.

Mozart’s A minor sonata came next. The first movement plunged us immediately into a great drama, not hard-driven from without, but a drama that arose from the material; Mozart’s minor-mode daemon spoke and told its story, without a hint of being forced to do so.  Passagework was as fluid as one could reasonably hope for, truly ‘flowing like oil’. And again, continuity arose out of discontinuity. The upward scale that initiates – perhaps better, provokes – the recapitulation summarised in miniature the virtues of Sokolov’s performance; I am not sure that I have ever heard it sound so dramatically meaningful. (Well, perhaps from Barenboim, in his very different way.) A cavil? Even Sokolov could not make the second repeat work. Anyway... Command of line was very much to the fore once again in the slow movement. Incidentals – at least were one to take a Schenkerian approach – such as repeated notes and trills impressed, but the greater whole did so still more. I have heard this movement sound more aria-like, and in general might well wish to do so, but I cannot recall it sounding more pianistic. The full dynamic range of the piano – again, at least as set up – was employed sparingly, but with powerful effect when the extremes of fortissimo and una corda were heard. Balanced against that must be the strange effect of hearing very strong overtones during the finale, on account of the instrument’s regulation: C sharp against that crucial third degree of the scale, C natural. Otherwise, that movement, in which textures can readily become muddy, especially in the left hand, emerged clean and yet ambivalent, as Mozart’s expressively dialectical demands require. The sonata, then, was played as the masterpiece that is; its finale emerged as a true Mozartian finale, not hankering to be Beethoven, not unduly weighty, but necessary.

The Hammerklavier Sonata received a performance that was certainly extraordinary but that was, to my mind at least, far more problematical. Perhaps I have become too hidebound by what I have already heard, though I flatter myself that I am open to performances as different as those by Schnabel and Pollini. In that company, Sokolov was more ‘interesting’ than convincing. For one thing, I felt that the modifications made to his Steinway were more of an obstacle to unleashing Beethovenian force, not least since a preoccupation with sound at times seemed to thwart the line so apparent in the first half; true, miracles of voicing could be heard, but to what end? That said, and irrespective of whether this were the (more or less Romantic) intent – I am not at all sure that it was – the radical discontinuities of Beethoven’s musical material reasserted themselves in true Adornian style; a performance that was merely mediocre could never have achieved that. Those discontinuities were still more apparent in the scherzo, thematic – almost a- or anti-thematic – ghosts of the Eroica and all. Chopinesque rumblings contributed rather than distracted. The slow movement opened with a pathos that I found impossible not to consider Schubertian. (Whether one thinks that appropriate is another matter; perhaps it is beside the point.) This was certainly not a Beethoven who looked forward to Boulez; but ‘we’ll always have Pollini’. Often closer to Les Adieux than the late quartets, save of course for inevitable dislocation, Sokolov’s performance was fascinating, strangely compelling. It was Romantic, strange, again often Chopinesque, not least in its cantilena; it approached the bizarre, indeed arguably achieved it. But in its way it was captivating, even if one would never wish to hear it that way again. Moreover, one should remember that this music is bizarre. Occasional clumsiness in the finale did not matter; it is pretty much to be expected. The performance united – and disunited – those virtues and oddities heard in the first three movements. At one point I thought the music was about to metamorphose into Mussorgsky, at another Scarlatti; yet, another telephonic intervention notwithstanding, my attention never wavered.