Can Grigory Sokolov actually smile? You don’t know, after all he doesn’t do it, no matter how wild the audience in Salzburg’s Great Festival Hall is. It is one of the many rituals surrounding the 72-year-old, for which he is loved just as much as for his piano playing. Like the darkness in the hall, the quick walk to the grand piano, the curt head waiter-like nod, yes, this entire evening: Sokolov’s annual station at the Salzburg Festival with the one and only program that he plays every year. In fact, no one knows if the Russian pianist can speak at all. Myths don’t give interviews.
But one thing is known after this evening: that Sokolov, smile or not, has a sense of humor. You can find out from Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Eroica Variations” op. 35, which should actually be called “Prometheus Variations”, a joke of music history. Because before Beethoven uses the variable theme in his Third Symphony, the Eroica, it can already be heard in the ballet music “The Creatures of Prometheus”. Which is important insofar as Sokolov actually interprets the beginning as Promethean: as the second act of creation.
Sokolov plays it – even with Beethoven only the bass, not yet the theme itself – as if searching, even the threefold hammered B flat denies its violence for the time being, gently adding the playing voices. But once the theme is born, Sokolov knows no stopping: figures begin to dance, basses rumble, staccatos and broken chords jump down the keyboard. It finally gets wild in the thirteenth variation, where Sokolov throws the suggestions into the Festspielhaus like crackers.
The 31-year-old Beethoven writes parodic music, music under masks – only that it is not yet as grim as in the later sister piece, the Diabelli Variations. And indeed: Sokolov does not spread the slow variation too elegiacly, does not glorify it as an anticipated late work. Instead, she embeds them in a work that is one thing above all else: anarchistic. And, in Sokolov’s play, hilarious as hell. Even if the audience, frozen in awe of the ritual, unfortunately doesn’t laugh, at most smiles.
A technical brilliance can be heard that does not want to shine
The programmatic cut that follows is particularly hard, confronting youth with old age. Johannes Brahms himself called his “Three Intermezzi” op. 117 “Lullabies of my pains”, sparse “piano things” by a nearly 60-year-old. Sokolov now relies on a brittle, fast, papery tone. As is his ability to control the sound, to set the sound excellent – and at the same time always retains something brittle, never sacrificing the inner sense of the rounding to the beautiful sound. Brahms wrote Andante three times about his pieces. But “go” doesn’t do much here anymore. It is more of a touch with which Sokolov founds in subtle harmonic shifts, the monophonic beginning of the third intermezzo, carefully enriched by further tones. As if no one is a matter of course anymore, in abundance: music that the world has almost lost.
The program is rounded off with Robert Schumann’s “Kreisleriana” op. 16 after the break. Not offensive under a complex motto, but, as always with Sokolov, thought of the form. All three works of the evening are not large forms, but cycles of diverse small forms, playful particles in Beethoven, an expression of emotional turmoil in Schumann. Sokolov now unpacks the virtuoso paw, does phenomenal finger work, technical brilliance that doesn’t want to shine. Rather, it serves to create clarity even in the densest thunderstorm of voices, to illuminate voice leadings against each other in different colors. And yet: This “Kreisleriana” – neither Schumann’s most varied nor the most coherent piano cycle – loses to the clear settings of the first part. Above all, Sokolov works out the contrast between the stormy and the melancholic, between the outside and the inside. But he surprisingly lets the eccentric humor slip away. Have you smiled enough at Beethoven?
One does not know. But you know what’s coming: earlier seven, now more like six encores. The first four from the Préludes op. 23 by Sergei Rachmaninoff, followed by Alexander Scriabin’s op. 11 no. 4 and Alexander Siloti’s B minor arrangement of Bach’s E minor Prelude from Volume I of the Well-Tempered Clavier. The audience joins in the ritual, clapping louder and louder, shouting bravo, as if it actually had to force Sokolov to do an encore. He goes out after each one, comes back a second time, nods his head, plays. If he doesn’t play anymore, the evening is over. Everyone knows and goes home. And they know, like the reviewer, that they want to be there again next year.