Music made in the present moment, unique and unrepeatable, is all that matters to Grigory Sokolov. He has no interest in making studio recordings or playing with orchestras or in chamber music; instead, he spends months immersed in his recital programme which he performs over the course of long tours all over Europe. The Russian pianist’s poetic interpretations, which come to life with mystical intensity and captivating honesty, arise from his profound insight into a vast repertoire. Sokolov’s programmes span everything from transcriptions of medieval sacred polyphony and keyboard works by Byrd, Couperin, Rameau and Froberger to the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin and Brahms, as well as landmark twentieth-century compositions by Prokofiev, Ravel, Scriabin, Rachmaninov, Schoenberg and Stravinsky. He is widely recognised among pianophiles as today’s greatest pianist, an artist universally admired for his visionary creativity, spellbinding spontaneity and uncompromising devotion to music.
Critical acclaim and audience ovations underline the humanity and compassion conveyed by Sokolov’s work, reflected not least in reviews that speak of his “genius” and status as a “living legend”. “There are many people who are convinced that, following the deaths of musicians like Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Glenn Gould and Emil Gilels, [Sokolov] is now the greatest living pianist,” observed the award-winning documentary maker Bruno Monsaingeon, who caught the essence of Sokolov’s artistry on camera in recital in 2002 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris.
Sokolov signed an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon in 2014. The relationship, welcomed by a new and enthusiastic audience, has reinforced the pianist’s place among the truly great musicians of modern times. In January 2015, the Yellow Label released Sokolov’s first new album for almost two decades, a sensational recital recorded live at the 2008 Salzburg Festival. The double-disc set comprises two sonatas by Mozart, Chopin’s 24 Préludes Op.28 and encore pieces by J.S. Bach, Chopin, Rameau and Scriabin, emblematic of the artist’s broad and diverse repertoire. Sokolov’s Salzburg Recital album was followed in January 2016 by the release of a second two-disc set, Sokolov: Schubert/Beethoven. The latter contains Schubert’s Four Impromptus D899 and Three Piano Pieces D946, recorded live at the Warsaw Philharmonie in 2013, and Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.29 “Hammerklavier”, recorded in performance at the 2013 Salzburg Festival, together with encores by Rameau and Brahms.
Sokolov’s third DG album, released in March 2017, presents his personal choice of two live concerto performances: Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major K488 and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.3, the former recorded at the Salzburg Mozart Week in 2005, the latter at the BBC Proms in 1995. These historic archive recordings will be issued together with the DVD of Nadia Zhdanova’s documentary film A Conversation That Never Was, a revealing portrait of Sokolov based on interviews with the pianist’s friends and colleagues and illustrated with previously unseen footage from private archives.
Grigory Sokolov was born in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) on 18 April 1950. He started to play piano at the age of five and, two years later, began studies with Liya Zelikhman at the Central Special School of the Leningrad Conservatory. He went on to receive lessons from Moisey Khalfin at the Leningrad Conservatory, and gave his debut recital in Leningrad in 1962. Sokolov’s prodigious talent was recognised in 1965 when he won first prize in the Russian National Competition. He made headline news beyond the Soviet Union’s borders the following year when, at 16, he became the youngest musician ever to receive the coveted Gold Medal at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Emil Gilels, chairman of the Tchaikovsky Competition jury, subsequently championed Sokolov’s work.
While Grigory Sokolov undertook major concert tours to the United States and Japan in the 1970s, his artistry evolved and matured away from the international spotlight. His live recordings from Soviet times acquired near-mythical status in the West, evidence of an artist at once entirely individual, like no other, yet nourished by the rich soil of the Russian tradition of piano playing. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sokolov began to appear at the world’s leading concert halls and festivals. He performed extensively as concerto soloist with orchestras of the highest calibre, working with the New York Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, the Philharmonia London, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks and the Munich Philharmonic, among others, before deciding to focus exclusively on giving solo recitals. Sokolov performs around 70 concerts each season, immersing himself fully in a single programme and touring extensively throughout Europe and beyond. His repertoire focus for the first half of 2017 falls on the mature piano sonatas of Mozart and Beethoven, including Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C major K545 and Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.32 in C minor Op.111.
Unlike many pianists, Sokolov takes the closest interest in the mechanism and set-up of the instruments he plays. He spends hours exploring their physical characteristics, consulting and collaborating with piano technicians to achieve his ideal requirements. “You need hours to understand the piano, because each one has its own personality and we play together,” he explains. The partnership between artist and instrument is critically important to the flow of Sokolov’s musical ideas. Sparing in his use of the sustaining pedal, he conjures everything from the subtlest tonal and textural gradations to the boldest contrasts of sound through the sheer brilliance of his finger-work. Critics regularly draw attention to his uncanny ability to articulate individual voices within a complex polyphonic texture and project seamless melodic lines.
Grigory Sokolov’s charismatic artistry holds the power to cultivate the concentration necessary for audiences to contemplate even the most familiar compositions from fresh perspectives. In recital, he draws listeners into a close relationship with the music, transcending matters of surface display and showmanship to reveal deeper spiritual meaning. Sokolov’s art rests on the rock-solid foundations of his singular personality and individual vision. He regards many of the conventions attached to a modern musical career, not least those concerned with media and public relations, as distractions from the paramount matters of studying and making music. The remarkable rarity and captivating qualities of his playing were neatly summarised in a recent review, which noted how Sokolov “stunned his audience with a kind of pianism, musicianship and artistry one thought had vanished forever”.