Lights were dimmed to a glimmer, for we were in a church and this was an act of worship. The Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov, stately, impassive, stepped through the gloom to commune with his piano, for all the world a corporeal incarnation of some metaphysical poem. The faithful and the fortunate were present to hear their mystic god play a programme of Mozart and Beethoven. Plus six encores.

Grigory Sokolov © Aline Paley
Grigory Sokolov
© Aline Paley

For the record, the latter included Schubert’s Moments musicaux no. 1, Schumann’s Arabesque and three Chopin Preludes, plus a quick spot of Rameau - his L’Indiscrète. The acolytes... sorry, audience... were busy counting, and they kept the applause going until the magic tally had been reached. It’s self-fulfilling, you see: Sokolov always gives six encores, so they had no choice but to put their hands together until they bled. By lights-up, the concert had topped the three-hour mark.

Sometimes showbiz happens by accident. It’s integrity, not pretentiousness, that led Sokolov to arrive in solemnity, then launch in to Mozart’s brightest and most artless sonata when his demeanour seemed to a threaten a Petrarch Sonnet at least. Not that his Mozart playing was in any way orthodox. Sokolov took a weighty approach to the popular K545 sonata, using the music’s C major brightness as a tool with which to prise it open. Yet, once inside, there was a surprising delicacy to moments like his embellishment of the first movement recapitulation.

The big surprises were Sokolov’s segues from Sonata to Fantasie and back again to another sonata, this time no. 14, K467. I’d call them cheeky if such an epithet suited the grand man; yet there was method in his madness, for no other approach could better highlight the contrast between the works. The Fantasie in C minor, K475, is a startlingly mercurial piece, as protean as the childlike sonata had been unchanging, and under the Russian’s fingers it sounded positively Beethovenian. It was the centrepiece of what, at Sokolov’s tempos, became a full, uninterrupted hour of Mozart. Yet the approach was as unnerving as it was enlightening. It was 'don’t try this at home' playing.

Grigory Sokolov © Aline Paley
Grigory Sokolov
© Aline Paley

Beethoven, by contrast, had nothing to fear from his genius. Two sonatas, elided once more into one, were interpreted with an absorption that nourished the listener’s own concentration. The slight but memorable no. 27, Op.90, was treated as a prelude to the star turn, a shatteringly architectural account of the great Op.111. Sokolov’s playing of this masterpiece probed the outer reaches of his inner soul, as if he had stepped into a mind palace and was meditating his way through every room.

The slow, low rumble with which he launched into the Maestoso first movement, with its three bold notes that herald a menacing ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’ melody, was big-boned and brimmed with intent. His playing of the ensuing Arietta, though, seemed puzzlingly anaemic – bleached clean of phrasing or dynamic variety – until a sudden lurch into the fast, syncopated section that followed made everything clear. As colours poured in through a metaphorical stained glass window, they shimmered all the more brightly because of that earlier monochrome. Moods thereafter were shaded and shifted in a dazzling display of the pianist’s formidable technique. It was sci-fi pianism.

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