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Grigory Sokolov, the elusive genius of the piano

Grigory Sokolov, the elusive genius of the piano
/ MARY STEPKOVA
  • classical

  • He doesn’t give interviews or do recordings. He spends his life studying scores and the mechanics of the instrument. The living legend of music is about to perform in Malaga for the first time

Like that, leaning over his piano in absolute concentration, is where you will usually find him. Grigory Sokolov plays for at least five hours a day, whether he is giving a concert or not. He studies in minute detail the scores by the great masters from the past, but also the internal workings of the instrument that produces the sound from every stroke of a key. He has spent the majority of his 71 years doing this, a master of interpretation and the purely mechanical which makes him stand out from the rest. Even Steinway, the famous piano creators, consult him every time they plan to change something in their models.

An example of that brand has been brought from Granada to Malaga and carefully installed on the stage at the Palacio de Ferias y Congresos, where Grigory Sokolov will be performing on 2 and 3 July for just 400 people each evening, organised by Sol Classic Management (performances start at 7.30pm and tickets are between 25 and 40 euros).

This will be the first recital given in the province by a living legend of the piano, one of the greatest contemporary musicians, about whom little is known beyond his concerts. Sokolov doesn't give interviews. "My music answers for me," is all he says, when one is requested. A short while ago he did agree to one, but that was about Russian pianist Alexandra Dovgan, who he has sponsored. Not a single word about himself.

In fact, the only documentary there is about him, made by Nadia Zhdanova (the founder of Sol Classic Management along with Tatiana Gorbunova) has the illustrative title of A Conversation That Never Was, where friends and colleagues talk about Sokolov without him ever appearing on camera. A policy of keeping well away from the spotlight, which makes him one of the most enigmatic musicians of our time. But when he is surrounded by his own people, he is said to be a "very friendly, calm man who is always smiling".

Lockdown in Mijas

He is performing on stage in Malaga for the first time but it is not the first time he has been here. Sokolov has lived here for a while, although not by intention. He is resident in Verona, in Italy, but the coronavirus lockdown took him by surprise during his tour of Spain. On 18 April 2020 he was due to give a concert in Ronda and, like the rest of us, thought the lockdown would just be for two weeks. In the end, he spent the two months in Mijas, where he managed to rent two adjoining apartments so that he could maintain his routine of practising the piano every day without disturbing anybody. He has returned to Mijas for these recitals, and has been combining his preparation with moments of relaxation at the Picasso Museum in Malaga, La Concepción botanical garden and La Paloma park in Benalmádena.

In Mijas he started to prepare for the programme which he is now presenting in his concerts around the world: three polonaises by Chopin and Rachmaninov's 10 Preludes. Before the public in Malaga hear him for the first time, he will be rehearsing twice at the concert hall. Another example of his professionalism. He personally ensures that the temperature is right, the lighting is correct and so is the placing of the instrument so that the sound reaches the audience as perfectly as possible.

This is his ritual, the first step to a unique communication with the audience when all that matters is the here and now, the music that flows in that moment. Because Sokolov tries to ensure that every concert is an exclusive and unrepeatable event. That's why he resists studio recordings. They are not able to reproduce the trance into which he and his audience are placed by the music. His few discs were almost all recorded live. And although he has played with the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, the New York Philharmonic and that of Munich and the Symphony Orchestras of Vienna and Montreal, it is years since he accompanied an orchestra. He seeks maximum purity and cleanliness of sounds in a perfect symbiosis with the instrument. Those who know him say that Sokolov does not see the piano as a tool, but as a 'companion' on the stage.

This all began when he was a child. He started studying when he was five years old and at 12 he performed his first major concert in Moscow. When he was 16 he attracted media attention by wining the Tchaikovsky International Competition. That was in 1966 and Sokolov was already making a name for himself in the country of his birth, but it was not until the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s that his career took on an international perspective. During this time he has earned the respect of his colleagues. It is said that pianists rarely attend concerts of others, but that is not so with Sokolov. Daniel Barenboim, for example, is a regular at his recitals.

And, despite his long career, Sokolov maintains a deep respect for performing live. They say he is always nervous before going on stage, and even that he loses two or three kilos before every event. That is the extent of his dedication to music.

Sokolov performs on 2& 3 July at the Palacio de Ferias y Congresos in Malaga, at 7.30pm. Tickets between 25 and 40 euros, on sale at www.malagaentradas.com