At a sold-out Concertgebouw on a beautiful Amsterdam night, legendary pianist Grigory Sokolov played Purcell, Mozart and a half hour of encores. Whether walking down the staircase or returning from the wings, he moved with the determination of a man already deeply involved with the music he was about to play and totally ready to get on with it. 

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Grigory Sokolov
© Mary Slepkova | DG

He played with a lapidary aesthetic, deeply focused on the musical gems he was working on. His movements when he turned from acknowledging the applause and beginning the next piece were the same, seeming to synch the audience's own involvement with the music to his own: he turned first to the audience in the main hall, and then to the audience in the upper chorus seats flanking the large florid organ. Then, with a graceful dip of his shoulders to the right as if he might be leaving the stage he was seated and suddenly there was music – and everyone in the audience was with him every step of the way. 

Sokolov's affair with early keyboard composers like Froberger and Byrd, which was inspired by Glenn Gould, was internalized even more intensely in these deeply subjective performances of Purcell. He took no breath between the nine pieces as they developed into an extended discussion between composer and pianist with the audience allowed to eavesdrop. In the big minor key pieces, he took his time creating harmonic spaces that suggested Bach; from time to time he became more absorbed in how trills and other figurations could disturb and then inhabit the line. He might occasionally apply a wider tonal palette with richer bass. 

It may have seemed ironic that such 21st-century playing would dominate a recital in the land where Gustav Leonhardt had brought such great clarity to the genius of Purcell's generation, but Sokolov respected the clarity of the composer's thinking without becoming crystalline, and his left hand was as lovingly-placed and eloquent as the right. His own meditative spirit threw a sombre cast on Purcell's New Scotch Tune which he played slowly with the gentlest of snaps, and restlessly over the hornpipe Britten would use for his Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, which was inconsolably sultry. 

Mozart in the second half of the concert engaged Sokolov on an entirely level. Here he was free to simply let the music roll out with all the pleasing effect Mozart had intended. It was rounded Mozart devoid of prettiness, particularly in the slow movements when he took both repeats. In the finale he found magic in softly blurred passagework and a touching return to the main theme after the cadenza. 

For the third “half” of the recital, Sokolov returned to the stage with increased determination and energy for a series of encores studded with the flaming colors of Rameau, the poetry of Chopin, and the awesome power of Rachmaninov. As much beauty and insight as he had brought to Purcell and Mozart, this was where the greatest Sokolov still may lie. By the time they finally turned the auditorium lights on, his energy level, if anything, was still increasing.