Pianist mistakes his slow style for profundity


COLLEGE PARK -- When Grigori Sokolov became the youngest ever first-prize winner of Moscow's Tchaikovsky Competition in 1966, the late great Emil Gilels, the chairman of the jury, said of the 16-year-old, "His playing breathes freshness and light."

I don't think Gilels would have said that last night of the way Sokolov, now 42, played Brahms' F Minor Sonata in Tawes Theater at the University of Maryland.

This recital -- the second of the university's International Piano Festival -- showed that Sokolov, while still a great talent, has fallen a victim to the virus that now afflicts so many of our younger musicians: It produces a delusion that equates slowness with profundity.

The St. Petersburg pianist took 38 minutes to play the piece that all but collapsed beneath its own weight. Most pianists take a little more than 30 minutes to play it, and even Claudio Arrau used to take less than 35.

Sokolov seemed intent on letting the listener hear everything, massaging every note and subjecting every phrase to his microscopic gaze. There was some remarkable playing -- Sokolov has a beautiful tone, a huge dynamic scale and infallible fingers -- but the piece was robbed of architectural sweep. Sokolov's funereal tempos reminded one of the worst thing that used to be said about Brahms: That his music all sounds as if it were andante.

The second half of the recital found Sokolov on more congenial ground in Russian music -- three preludes by Rachmaninov and Stravinsky's own transcription for piano of three movements from "Petrouchka."

This listener responds to virtuosic performances of this repertory the way some of his barefoot brothers in Appalachia and the Caribbean islands respond to cock fights: It's blood sport, and he loves it. Suffice it to say that Sokolov responded to these pieces -- particularly to the infernal delights of the Stravinsky -- with the glee that Count Dracula might feel at the prospect of spending the night in a blood bank.

This made for a second half that was as exciting as the first half was dull.

In the music of his own country, Sokolov has few peers.

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