Grigory Sokolov’s annual visit to the Konzerthaus – always in December, always half-lit, always a lengthy affair – is an object of cultish appreciation for the Viennese, who are drawn to mystique like moths to a flame. Public reverence on this occasion did not however extend to the silencing of mobile phones and such a persistent chorus of ringtones I do not recall since hearing Arcadi Volodos, supposedly another local favourite.

Grigory Sokolov © AMC Artists Management
Grigory Sokolov
© AMC Artists Management

A pre-concert announcement made in person – which normally does the job – would be a minor addition to the logistical courtesies the house makes to accommodate Sokolov, which this year included preparing an instrument any other pianist would find unplayable. Concert pianists routinely make clear their voicing preferences to technicians but rarely does voicing alone transform the character of an instrument so radically: on the stage was a Steinway Model D, but encased in that immense sarcophagus appeared to be the soundboard of a Bechstein and the timbre of an early 19th-century Broadwood. The sound did not fill the hall as magnificently as this instrument typically does.

Body and size were most noticeably lacking in the Beethoven, and needlessly so as Sokolov ably eschewed any vestiges of bombast by virtue of touch alone. From the outset one heard the recognition that structure in the Hammerklavier coheres inevitably enough that the work’s prevailing descending third motif may be given over to diverse treatment and so there was no overbearing articulation, either crashingly at the beginning or thuddingly in the development section, but instead, careful attention to the wider phrase at hand and the understanding that the falling third has its place in a structural hierarchy. Analytical truths on the page realized as motivic head-banging are destructive to large-scale structure, or so Sokolov’s point seemed, and he stated it eloquently enough to make his alternative view sound like orthodoxy; dialectical force certainly emerged strengthened and the series of oblique developmental modulations was at once turbulent and essential.

Continuity or some consistency appeared likely under the circumstances but the second movement, entirely fresh-faced with no trace of parody, began as if we hadn’t heard the first at all. Surfacing in the trio, inscrutable echoes of the Eroica seemed more of a vagary than a thought-out departure, but the Hammerklavier’s famous B natural–B flat opposition, downplayed in the first movement and perhaps all the more exposed at the very end of the Scherzo for it, loomed as discomfortingly as abutting semitones in Ligeti’s Musica ricercata. With the semiquaver triplets and demisemiquavers the fabric of the third movement seemed too to dissolve in a manner which repeatedly brought Berio’s Rendering to mind. The final movement saw a return to the style of the first with a touch more certitude, bringing alongside it perhaps too single-minded a focus on process, or rather process denied centrifugal panache; the dense contrapuntal thicket of the fugue never sounded less than that, or for that matter more. And yet as a closing statement it remained oddly satisfying, as much as I wanted it to develop as curiously as the inner movements.

The Mozart sonata, K310, was also hemmed in by the adjustments made to Sokolov’s Steinway, and more critically so given washed-out contrasts. There was no unnecessary impetuosity at the beginning, as there so often is, but an attempt at minor-mode tension – aiming for the Haydn of the Fifths Quartet – fell tinnily flat, and softer voicing on the E was puzzling (struck four times in three beats and doubled at the octave, some bite is called for). Sokolov is one of those pianists who rounds off the opening statement with a cadential arpeggio more suited to a stately minuet; when starting out with full-blown Sturm und Drang I invariably find staccato and a faintly truculent crescendo, saving contrast for the next phrase, more compelling. Taking a similarly less segmented approach but altogether more convincing was the way the length and character of the appoggiaturas varied. That is not to forget the ensuing phrase in the first group, with sensitively voiced suspensions in the left hand; the second subject, with semiquavers rattled through with all the conventional stresses and leanings, was on the other hand entirely forgettable. The same too, unfortunately, for the dramatic tensions of the development section, simply ploughed through. With the recapitulation a dry re-run of the exposition, this was a half-formed movement.

The slow movement was however beautifully judged; exquisite in the outer sections, with by far the smoothest legato of the evening (not, it may be said, generally Sokolov’s greatest strength), and never portentous for the dramatic incursion into the minor. The melody glistened despite constant use of the soft pedal, though Sokolov had the action shifted so far over to the right – una corda really meant one string – that for the A minor triads he had voiced so softly, the freshly needled felt often caught overtones of the adjacent semitone (E was heard more as F, and C as C sharp). This continued into the Rondo finale, a sprightly account that gathered in weight despite an A major middle episode glossed over a little.

Piano and pianist came together with considerably less bother in the Rameau D minor/major Suite, a substantive reading rendered with orchestral weight and precision, and somehow entirely apt music for Sokolov’s tendency towards slightly halting delivery. The most resplendent bell-like clarity I have heard from a piano in some time came from the onset, in “Les tendres plaintes”, and sounded an unusually ideal timbre for Sokolov’s seriousness of purpose. The ground in “Les niais de Sologne” pressed ahead indefatigably and yet always delightfully, the sunny flipside perhaps to a more intricate Marais ground in the minor key. Bell-like tone returned for the pealing runs of “La joyeuse”, while descending sequences and suspensions dropped melancholically in “L’entretien des Muses”. “Les tourbillons” offered the first cyclical resonances, its meter and triplets harking back to “Les niais de Sologne”, just as in returning to D minor “Les cyclopes” did to “Les tendres plaintes”. An echo of Sokolov’s famous 1982 Goldberg Variations came with the agility of “Le lardon” and closing the suite, the plaintive tone of “L’entretien des Muses” was tapped once more for “La boiteuse”.

Sokolov is predictable in one sense, that his recital programmes in recent years usually group composers in threes. All the Konzerthaus need do for next December is find him three pianos.