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Bear in a China Shop

New York
Tisch Center for the Arts
11/27/1999 -  
Johann Jakob Froberger: Six Pieces for Keyboard
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata # 3
Frederic Chopin: Sonata # 3

Grigory Sokolov (piano)

The idea of "classical music" is still a relatively new one. In the era before the Mendelssohn revival of Bach composers did not think of their art as one for posterity. Rather it was a means of communicating to contemporary audiences and a vehicle for making a modest living. Johann Jakob Froberger was his own worst enemy in the field of musical immortality as he spent a great deal of his energy on destroying manuscripts that he had written rather than having them appropriated by other keyboard artists. Unfortunately for future generations, Froberger was no better at systematic destruction than he was at composition. Many of his works survive and are some of the most dreadful in all of Western musical history. Devoid of emotion or profundity, these exercises in the new "Italian" styles of the early seventeenth century are simply boring and contain few nuggets of pure musical thought beyond the slavish imitation of Frescobaldi. Hardly ever programmed any longer, the six pieces performed last evening seemed a propos of the deadened performance of Grigory Sokolov, a forty-nine year old ridiculously out of place in the "discoveries and debuts" series at the 92nd St. Y. Mr. Sokolov, so the press release tells us, played in the US some twenty years ago but has not been back since. Last evening we all found out why.

The seemingly interminable Froberger pieces allowed me much time to debate with myself as to which part of the experience I detested more, the music or the performance. Mr. Sokolov is a huge individual and possesses an extremely strong left hand, which would have served him well had he chosen prizefighting as a career. However, his bizarre conception of himself as a pianist left most of the sold out crowd puzzled and cold. There is no circumstance in which I would ever countenance such a response, but there were boos from the audience after the Baroque pieces and this behavior, although extremely rude, was personally understandable. Mr. Sokolov appears to have only two volume levels: triple fortissimo (90 percent of the time) and mezzo forte (I guess designed to show his "sensitivity").

When the athlete Lou Gehrig was stricken with the horrible disease which still bears his name, he decided to retire from baseball when the crowd cheered him wildly for making routine catches. Something similar occurred last evening (it was a lively group of young Russians) when there was audible excitement after the first movement of the Beethoven (although this could have been more catcalling) which was immediately stilled by several loud "ssh's" from the same area of the audience. It was vicariously thrilling to contemplate the potential for a crowd riot at this event and allowed me to have some hope of excitement in this otherwise tedious evening. The Beethoven was performed by Mr. Sokolov using the big meat tenderizer. He has a particularly annoying style of fingering, not just using his massive weight to pound the keyboard but actually practicing some form of synchronized calisthenics to make his attack even less appealing to the ear. Coupled with his haughty personality which did not allow him to acknowledge any applause from the audience, this high testosterone level of mauling the notes cast Mr. Sokolov as the evil wrestler that one loves to hate. He is a past winner of the Tchaikovsky competition judged by Emil Gilels and this is not surprising as he is definitely a member of the large handed Russian school and in the same lineage as Gilels, Richter and Berman. What was missing from last evening's performance, however, was any sense of delicacy whatsoever.

The second movement of the Beethoven really tore it for me. All we heard was the incessant thumping of that left hand, striking the piano so mercilessly that all intonation was lost. There was a noticeable stirring of disapproval from the audience. On this very stage some years ago, Lazar Berman struck his instrument so hard that pieces of wood fell from the piano, but even then there was a fine sense of musicality and a healthy amount of contrasting fingering nimbleness. With Mr. Sokolov there was only loudness and many wrong notes. Extremely rare behavior for me, like many other patrons I did not return after the welcome intermission to hear what his interpretation of Chopin might be. Considering the boisterousness of the crowd, perhaps I should have stayed around to see if the police were finally summoned.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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