*18 IV 1950 Leningrad
Grigory Sokolov began learning piano at the age of five. From 1957, he studied with Lea Zelikhman and Moyse Khalfin at the Leningrad Conservatory. He made his debut in Leningrad in 1962. His talent was spotted by Emil Gilels, who supported his later career. In 1966, at the age of sixteen, he won First Prize in the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, beginning a brilliant career in the USSR. He first appeared in the West during the 1980s. Since 1975, he has taught at the St Petersburg Conservatory.
Sokolov’s rather limited repertoire is influenced by the Russian piano tradition, especially the art of Svyatoslav Richter. He often performs music of the first half of the eighteenth century: excerpts from Couperin’s Ordre pour clavecin, music by William Byrd, Johann Jakob Frohberger and Jean-Philippe Rameau, and also J. S. Bach’s English suites, Well-tempered Clavier, Goldberg Variations and The Art of Fugue. He plays no Liszt, but some Schumann (Fantasy in C major), Schubert (several sonatas) and Brahms (Sonatas, Ballades), to which he has recently added Haydn (Sonatas, Hob. 23, 34, 37) and Mozart (sonatas and the Concerto in A major, K488). Among Russian composers, he is keen on Scriabin (Sonatas No. 3 and 9), Rachmaninov (Concerto No. 3) and Prokofiev (Sonatas Nos. 7 and 8); he also performs the music of Armenian composer Komitas. After each public concert, he plays several encores ranging from Bach (in Siloti’s transcription) through Chopin mazurkas to Debussy’s preludes.
In the opinion of many critics, Sokolov is the greatest living pianist. He combines a phenomenal finger technique (as testified by the Couperin miniatures and the finale of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7) with a total rejection of technique as a prime element of interpretation. His playing is permeated by an absolute focus on the music (similarly to Richter, he plays with dimmed lights); he prefers slow tempos and large forms (smaller works are often combined into ‘suites’), and transforms a slow unfolding of musical narrative into a trance-like experience, especially in slow movements, which in Sokolov’s interpretation acquire a new dramatic dimension (Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7, Brahms’s Ballades). While some of his readings are controversial (he has been accused of ‘vivisection’ with regard to the sonatas of Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms), his insights are often striking and fascinating, his playing immensely elegant (Haydn sonatas), and his sound visions refined (Scriabin’s Sonata No. 9, Rachmaninov’s Prelude in D major). Sokolov’s poetic capacities are fully revealed in his 1982 Leningrad recording of The Art of Fugue, where even the slight ritenutos at the end of each fugue are meticulously planned.
Among Chopin’s works, Sokolov plays the Concerto in F minor, Sonatas in B flat minor and B minor, Preludes, Op. 28, Etudes, Op. 25, the four impromptus, the Polonaise-Fantasy and the Nocturnes, Op. 62. His Chopin is lyrical but not sentimental, with limited dynamics, a parsimonious rubato, rather slow tempos, an emphasis on the poetic mood of the music, and balanced form: a Chopin that shows echoes of Schubert, and even Beethoven or Haydn.