I was once privileged to watch Grigory Sokolov practise, his figure so naturally hunched that his body seemed to have reshaped itself as an extension of his instrument. And he didn'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 lost count. Then, he played a few slow bars, over and over again, varying the pedalling. No fireworks, no letting rip: it was an intense and private communion.
All concert pianists have an aura, but that surrounding this 53-year-old Russian is unusual. He is obsessed with the occult, an expert on airline flight-paths and a fanatical tinkerer with the innards of Steinways. His recordings are live, yet technically immaculate. And they span wildly disparate worlds: Bach and Rachmaninov, Beethoven and Chopin, Scarlatti and Tchaikovsky are all 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. He's even capable of extracting beauty from the trite little theme on which Beethoven built his Diabelli Variations: when Sokolov plays two of that composer's sonatas at Birmingham's Symphony Hall and London's Wigmore Hall this week, his audiences will get a whiff of Russian pianism's vanished golden age.
He tells me that he wanted at three to become a conductor, and stood on a little podium waving a miniature baton 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 practice 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." 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 what's missing in the studio: I absolutely must feel it."
According to the producer who coaxed Sokolov's marvellous recordings out of him, a concert is for him a "sacred moment". And Sokolov admits that performing is his governing addiction: "If five days pass without a concert, I feel bad. It is not my normal condition." This is why, elusive and publicity-shy though he is, he crops up giving recitals in the unlikeliest places: getting away from it all in Sintra last year, I found him serenading the locals with his exquisite take on Haydn. If he comes to a hall near you, don't miss him.
Grigory Sokolov appears at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, (0121-780 3333) tomorrow at 8pm; Wigmore Hall, London W1 (020-7935 2141) on Saturday at 7.30pm
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