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 Recording of the Week  Grigory Sokolov performs piano concertos by Mozart and Rachmaninov

Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov is notorious for his dislike of performing concertos, citing the lack of available rehearsal time with the orchestra and the general loss of control in contrast to a solo recital. So, when I heard that he had authorised two concerto recordings from the archive to be released, I was expecting something pretty special.

Grigory Sokolov
Grigory Sokolov

We begin with Mozart's Concerto No. 23 in A major, K488. Having previously heard Sokolov's performances of some of the sonatas, I was already aware of his delicate touch when it comes to Mozart, and this performance is no exception. In the outer movements, the clarity and refinement of his playing is matched by the effortless grace of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra under Trevor Pinnock in this 2005 Salzburg recording.

It's in the second movement, however, that for me the real magic lies: at a daringly slow tempo, his way with Mozart's melodies is mesmerising, and I almost wanted it to be even slower so that I could bask in the joyous sounds for longer! The yearning clarinet and bassoon motifs that follow are made even more plaintive at this speed. This is an absolute gem of a movement.

We then jump back in time ten years, to a 1995 performance of Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto live from the BBC Proms, with the BBC Philharmonic under Yan Pascal Tortelier. It all begins assuredly enough: Sokolov shapes the opening melody beautifully, and his performance of some of the more fiendish passages (and this concerto has plenty of those!) is highly impressive.

And then, something extraordinary happens.

About halfway through the first movement, the performance suddenly kicks into another gear altogether. It's partly due to the nature of the music, of course, which continually builds in intensity, but it's performed with a ferocity and fervour like no other account that I have ever heard. This leads to a cadenza that I can only describe as jaw-dropping. No prizes for guessing that Sokolov opts for the more difficult alternative cadenza that Rachmaninov wrote, and for its entire three-minute duration I was staggered by what I was hearing.

There's no let-up in the second movement either: it's ostensibly a slow movement and yet the barrage of notes never seems to stop! The waltz passage towards the end of the movement is almost unbelievable when it comes to the speed at which Sokolov is able to despatch his repeated notes.

One of the many conditions that Sokolov insists on with these live releases is that they must be issued untouched, with no patching, and so, in the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that there is the occasional wrong note. Moreover, the piano itself goes slightly but audibly out of tune as the performance continues (this doesn’t surprise me, given the veritable onslaught that Sokolov subjects it to!). It's not a deal-breaker by any means, but it is most apparent in, for instance, the recapitulation of the main melody in the first movement, and some of the gentler passages in the second movement.

Did I notice it? Yes. Did I care? Not in the slightest. Quite honestly, (and please forgive my overeffusiveness!), this performance is so terrifyingly and monumentally phenomenal that mere wrong notes and de-tuned instruments can do nothing to dent its effect! If ever there were a testament to the thrill and power of a live performance, it is surely this one, and even listening to it at home on disc, such was the excitement of the closing bars that I couldn't help but stand and cheer along with the Albert Hall audience!

Anyway, once I had controlled myself and sat back down again, I was pleased to watch the accompanying DVD documentary, which includes interviews with colleagues and friends alongside archive footage of previous performances, not least an excerpt of the 16-year-old Sokolov playing Liszt's La Campanella at the 1966 International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, at which the jury, headed by Emil Gilels, unanimously awarded him the gold medal. It’s a fascinating insight into a truly great pianist.

Mozart & Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos

Grigory Sokolov (piano); Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Trevor Pinnock (Mozart); BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Yan Pascal Tortelier (Rachmaninov)

Available Format: CD + DVD Video