Beethoven, Brahms review - Sokolov finds radical Beethoven

Grigory Sokolov
(Deutsche Grammophon, 2 CDs, 1 DVD)
He last gave a concert in the UK in 2007, so any opportunity to hear one of the world’s finest pianists is welcome, though this is uneven

For over a decade now, the British government’s stringent visa requirements for visiting musicians from outside the EU have ensured that Grigory Sokolov has not played in Britain. The Russian gave his last recitals here in 2007, and as he no longer performs concertos, and shuns studio recordings, opportunities to hear a pianist who many regard as one of the finest alive today get fewer by the year. This compilation at least brings us more or less up to date, with performances taken from recitals that Sokolov gave in 2019 in Zaragoza, Wuppertal and in the Tyrolean village of Rabbi, where the great Italian pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli had a house, and where a festival is now held in his memory.

Grogory Sokolov: Beethoven Brahms album cover
Grogory Sokolov: Beethoven Brahms album cover Photograph: PR Handout

Although it’s often claimed that Sokolov has a repertoire that runs from Bach to the 20th century, there has been little evidence of that breadth so far in the releases under his exclusive contract with DG, which have stuck very firmly to the mainstream. Here, in the version that I was sent, it’s early and late Beethoven followed by late Brahms, together with a clutch of seven encores that do range more widely, to Rameau, Schubert, Debussy and Rachmaninov; those who buy the two-CD set also get a bonus DVD of Sokolov playing more Beethoven (the Op 90 and 111 sonatas), as well as Mozart, Schumann and Chopin.

The performances, though, are variable, with Sokolov’s Beethoven significantly more convincing than his Brahms, and some gems hidden among the encores, such as Rachmaninov’s G sharp minor prelude, Schubert’s C minor Allegretto and Debussy’s prelude Des pas sur la neige. The very best comes first, with an account of Beethoven’s C major Sonata Op 2 no 3 that magnificently conveys the sense of the young Beethoven testing out the limits of classical sonata form; the Op 119 Bagatelles that follow sometimes conjure up a similar concentrated fierceness, but can also seem matter-of-fact, while the Brahms is often disappointingly heavy handed, as in some of the Op 118 pieces, or lacking in the quiet poetry that makes the Op 119 set so personal.

This week’s other pick

It’s always fascinating to hear composers interpreting those who have been significant influences on their own work, and Thomas Adès’s music certainly owes much to Janáček. Adès’s performances for Signum of Janáček’s three major solo-piano works – the two-movement sonata, From the Streets, the 14 miniatures that make up the two books of On an Overgrown Path, and the four-movement In the Mists – certainly project the originality and freshness of the piano writing, even if there is not quite the range of keyboard colour of Rudolf Firkušný’s classic accounts for DG.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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