Game, set and match

Grigory Sokolov pores over Nostradamus, deciphers bar-codes and memorises international flight paths. He is also a compulsive pianist. Michael Church found him communing with his keyboard (and the cosmos) in Paris

Concert pianists often have an aura, but that surrounding 46-year- old Grigory Sokolov is unusual. He's obsessed with the occult, they say, and is also a fanatical tinkerer with the innards of pianos. His recordings are "live", yet technically immaculate. And they span wildly disparate worlds: Bach and Rachmaninov, Beethoven and Chopin, Scarlatti and Tchaikovsky are alike brought into high relief. His interpretations are poetic and highly individual; he can call on volcanic power, or on the most exquisite cantabile; he can find a thousand shades of pianissimo. In his rare interviews he gives little away. He's a legend in Russia, and a fleetingly elusive presence on the global circuit. He looks like a dreamy tramp.

I catch him on a quiet afternoon in Paris, between a recording session and a recital. As I'm early, he carries on practising for a while: a figure so naturally hunched that his body seems to have reshaped itself as an extension of the instrument. But he doesn't so much practise the Brahms Ballade in front of him, as meditate on it: intently studying a page, then turning back to the previous one, then forward, then back again, till I lose count. Then he plays a few slow bars, over and over again, varying the pedalling. No fireworks, no letting rip: an intense and private communion.

When he finally stops to talk, it's in German, the language with which, after Russian, he feels most at home. Home was - still is - St Petersburg, where he studied for 11 years at the conservatoire. The only child of music-loving parents, he wanted at three to become a conductor, and stood on a little podium waving a miniature baton - strange how many pianists start like this - while Beethoven and Mahler went round on the turntable. "One day they invited a piano teacher round, and asked what should be done with me. She said, `Nothing for the time being, but in a year's time I will teach him.' Then I forgot my dream of being a conductor."

He went on to win the Tchaikovsky Competition at 16. How many hours a day did he practise for that? "I don't remember. But I can tell you exactly how many I practise now: 24. Because, for me, the most important work doesn't happen at the piano at all: it's when something comes together in my head." Are there particular moments when he gets inspiration? "No. First you must internalise the music. The inspiration you leave to concerts, to the special state you are in." When the muse takes over? "Everything in art comes from above. All one's energy comes from the cosmos." No nerves then? "Nerves are an inextricable part of it all. When you play as if you were drinking a cup of tea, that's not music. If I don't feel anxious before a concert, I wonder what's wrong. It's precisely what's missing in the studio: I absolutely must feel it." He's friendly, but wary; each question is politely dealt with, and the conversational ball put back in my court.

Why were there tensions between him and his producer in the studio this morning? "Editing disturbs the balance of things. Without `corrections' my recordings are always better. For me the original is the model, and any change - even a single note - is a distortion. They haven't yet had the courage to put me out uncut. Next time they will." He says this with a determined glint.

He doesn't play chamber music: "For that, musicians must be permanently matched. If you merely meet up to practise a couple of days before a concert, no real music comes out of it." Does he teach? "I have one student at present." A good one? "Not particularly." (Let's hope he or she doesn't read this.) Who are his favourite pianists? "Horowitz, Rubinstein, Gilels, Gould, Solomon, Schnabel, Rachmaninov." All dead! "Not for me. When I speak of Gilels or Gould, I always speak in the present tense. Music for me has no time, no geography." And thus it is with composers. "It's not that the best music has already been written, but there won't be anything better, because music has no development. Each great composer brings a new world, which is completely self-sufficient."

His mechanical expertise, he insists, is a newspaper myth, but he does observe that the world has too few good pianos, and too few good technicians. He practises on stage before a concert, "to get to know the piano, and the acoustic". And concerts are his governing addiction: "If five days pass without a concert, I feel bad. It is not my normal condition." This condition was seriously upset by America's embargo on Russian performers during the Afghan war. "For eight years I could not play in the US." What about playing in Russia now? "I only play in Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod and St Petersburg. Nowhere else is safe, and there are problems with pianos, and power cuts." What does he want for Russia? "That there should be no more war, no more political extremes. Stability." Does he feel nostalgia for Soviet stability? "It was not stable. We were all Communism's victims. Stability is interwoven with human rights." He gives the bleakest of smiles.

As tennis matches go, this has been quite fruitful, but the initial sense of mystery remains. So I ask around a bit, and discover some interesting things.

The "practice" on which I eavesdropped was, if anything, busier than usual: whole hours can pass in contemplation, before he plays a note. And the studio tensions were the tip of an iceberg: his harassed producer Yolanta Skura - herself a former pianist - says it took her four years to persuade him to re-record four bars. "Last week he spent three days listening to all the possible places for making a single edit - and finally refused to make it. He has l'esprit de contradiction - every new idea gets a nyet."

For Sokolov, she says, a concert is a "sacred moment", to which every recording session should approximate. "For the first record I made with him - of Chopin's Preludes - he insisted on doing it in a theatre lit as though for a concert. He appeared in evening dress three days in a row, and in effect gave three entire concerts."

And he'll travel a thousand miles to find the right piano. The "newspaper myth" about him dismantling pianos is not a myth at all: when he encounters one he's not played before, he strips it down to its tiniest parts and notes their serial numbers; only after that will he play it. He has been known to tell Steinway-owners things they never knew about the history of their pianos: where they have been, which craftsmen worked on them.

Far from being hard on his students, he buys books for them abroad which they can't get at home, and he habitually goes back to St Petersburg laden with medicines for friends. His financial generosity to musicians in need - often dispensed by stealth through intermediaries - is something you learn about from his friends, but never from him. His agent despairs of getting him to discard the coat and scarf he has worn for the last 20 years.

With his wife - his main line of communication, after the piano, with the rest of the world -he is a connoisseur of painting, but he has other more surprising areas of expertise. One of his agent's duties is to keep him supplied with the latest flight-path manuals; he knows as much as pilots do about navigating big planes, and has on occasion proved to know more. He reads voraciously about space research - and no less eagerly about Nostradamus. One of his idler games is deciphering bar-codes. There's more intellectual energy here than music could ever soak up.

Those who work with him all testify to his endearing eccentricity: the conductor Trevor Pinnock recalls him warming up for a Beethoven recording by playing William Byrd. And he seems wonderfully consistent: the Russian conductor Anatoly Grindenko, who went to primary school with him, says he hasn't changed at all. "He was modest and quiet: he didn't rush about, any more than he does now. He wasn't a wunderkind - just a normal boy, with abnormal gifts, who knew what his goal was, right from the start.

He was always a noble musician."

But Grindenko also recalls something painful: when Sokolov won the Tchaikovsky competition, he was whistled and jeered by the audience. Grindenko puts this down to the Muscovites' preference, in 1966, for showy Americans. But it may not have helped that Sokolov is Jewish. Indeed, neither he nor his friends will discuss the way he was kept out in the cold by the Soviet authorities, and prevented from doing foreign tours. In the West, this was deduced from the mysterious series of cancellations which dogged his name throughout the Seventies; this is why he is now, at a relatively late age, still in the early stages of a new and burgeoning career.

"Until Communism fell," says Skura, "Grigory lived in fear. He always tried to keep his papers in order, but he was always afraid there would be a hitch. He was always pessimistic - and that pessimism has stayed with him." This sheds different light on his compulsion to perform - and even, perhaps, on his passion for flightn

Grigory Sokolov will play Bach and Chopin at St John's, Smith Square on Monday at 1.00pm (0171-222 1061). The concert will be broadcast live on Radio 3. Sokolov's CDs are released on the Opus 111 label; the latest is Schubert's Piano Sonatas D 894 and D 960

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory