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‘Greatest living pianist’ won’t play in Britain

The prodigious and articulate pianist James Rhodes has written a lively tribute in the Spectator magazine to the eccentric Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov, who lives in Madrid. James calls him ‘the greatest living pianist’, an appellation that is hard to prove since Sokolov makes few recordings, lives a sheltered life and doesn’t go out much.

He especially won’t go to London since that would mean attending the consulate in person in order to obtain a visa.

That is something most of us have to do to go to Russia, China and many other countries, so I can’t offer him more than a modicum of sympathy and a further dash of regret that I won’t be hearing him any time soon.  I hope he will sympathise with me in return for having to spend the rest of my life listening to the also-rans.

Somehow, I just don’t buy that ‘greatest’ thing when it cannot be tested in the same international conditions in which others are judged.


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  1. I heard him in Vienna in Winter…..”the greatest living pianist”….quite possible. I rank him and Martha 1st place anyhow. Maybe….something a little more for Grigorij. It is really worth travelling considerably to hear him play. It’s simply…total.

  2. Sokolov made a clutch of appearances in America, but after 9/11, he never came to the western hemisphere. What a pity! He is a tremendous pianist, with a gigantic sonority and exquisite sensitivity to subtleties of the keyboard. A huge dynamic and musical range.

  3. Sokolov-fan says:

    Norman, pay a visit to You Tube and find out what kind of pianist we’re talking about. Sure, everyone has his/her own taste but you can test him quite easily and compare his interpretations to other “greatest living pianists”. I’ve seen him over ten times and those concerts have all been nothing less but highlights of my music-listening life.

  4. Petros Linardos says:

    Sokolov no longer travels to the US either. How unfortunate for us.

    • Heavens, you mean there is a musician who isn’t lured by sheer greed, fame and power over potential sexual exploits?

      He’s not alone, but the numbers are few. Yes, the US music scene is ‘unfortunate’ to say the least.

      • Petros Linardos says:

        Your first sentence contains utterly offensive, uninformed and misleading generalizations.

        Norman, where do you draw the line on allowing such comments on the blog?

  5. Amazing pianist! Heard him playing in a private concert in Majorca a few years ago. I am sure that if he wasn’t such a complex person and performed more he would be rated among the top 10 living pianists.

  6. Robin Blonstein says:

    Your blog is well named ‘Slipped Disc’ for this article, Norman. Sokolov will need some more ‘spin control’ after this notice, if as you say, his own recordings don’t live up to his bestowed title in the press.

    In my mind, any musician ‘great’ and ‘living’ has instant name recognition. Call me a philistine, or an ostrich, but his name doesn’t register erratic movement on my Richter scale of sensual excitement.

    Somebody should inform him he’s free to walk about Mother Russia now. Something tells me he prefers his stuffy studio. Maybe he’s the ostrich?

  7. Martin Malmgren says:

    Whether he is “the greatest” or not is perhaps not meaningful to discuss. However, that he occupies a very significant place in the piano world today should be fairly clear to anyone, whether you appreciate how he plays or not. As far as testing him “in the same international conditions in which others are judged”, anyone can go on youtube to find live recordings from most periods of his performing career.

  8. You can hear him in Switzerland; he plays recitals about once a year here in Zürich! The last time was just recently, on 2 March 2013. Next year will be on 16 May 2014 (program to be announced).

    I wonder if he needs a visa to come to Switzerland? I suspect that there might be other reasons than that for not visiting the UK, but do not wish to speculate.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      I haven’t been to the UK in 15 years or so, but from what I have heard, but I am told the food isn’t as terrible anymore as it used to be, due tI don’t know if that’s true though.

  9. Mr. Sokolov performs regularly and extensively to sold-out audiences in most of the major concert halls in mainland Europe. I doubt he needs or seeks further “testing” of his artistic abilities.

  10. Jonathan Z says:

    I’m sorry Norman but you are way off the mark here. I have heard Sokolov live three times and can attest to his greatness. It’s simply not true to say that he “doesn’t get out much”. Look here and you will find 24 concerts listed in the next four months including such well-known venues as Berlin, Rome, Salzberg and Verbier.

    Sokolov used to visit the UK every year until about 5 years ago when, as you rightly point out, the UK Government stated that, as a result of new counter-terror measures, he would have to visit the Consulate in person to be able to travel here. He felt that he had better ways to spend his time and has not been heard here since. We need him more than he needs us – as you can see his diary is full of engagements all over Europe and all he wants to do is prepare for and give those recitals.

    If people haven’t heard him there are plenty of recordings – Chopin, Beethoven, Bach, Schubert etc – that are widely available. Sadly he isn’t much interested in issuing more and so never gets around to approving the many live recordings that his record label would like to release.

    Many highly qualified judges record him as a unique musical presence. As for the greatest, well that is just hyperbole.

  11. It sounds as if he might be agoraphobic. If so, he deserves our sympathy; it’s a fear-filled condition.

  12. José Lastarria says:

    He plays in Toulouse every year, a city thait’s easy to get to.

  13. James Rhodes is right. Many of us had plenty of chances to hear Sokolov play in Britain before he decided not to, and still have opportunities to hear him overseas. Here is my response to his QEH recital in 2005, which may help explain what all the fuss is about.

  14. Doesn’t it depend where he’s playing (& cost of tickets)? Madrid doesn’t need a visa if one is an EU citizen. Though I’m very happy listening to anyone who makes it to London!

  15. Oleg Sherstiucoff says:

    Norman wrote: Somehow, I just don’t buy that ‘greatest’ thing when it cannot be tested in the same international conditions in which others are judged.

    Actually, in spite of all that hype,neither does any reasonable person.

  16. pianists says:

    I’m sorry, I fail to see how this guy, mashing his chords with wrong notes a plenty for a start, can be considered the greatest living pianist.

    • Michael Redmond says:

      Hmm. Well, poor us, we’ll just have to settle for this performance until your recording is released, Pianists.While we’re waiting: Whose recording(s) would you recommend?

    • José Lastarria says:

      How old is that video? HE’s completely grey-haired, now. Artists do tend to improve with age.

    • Clearly you never heard Horowitz…LOL!

    • Rach 3 was never his best piece. This was Sokolov much younger, he’s struggling with a sub-standard orchestra. He plays regularly around continental Europe; i’ve even caught him in such mighty musical megalopolis’ as … Avignon! Usually i marvel at half/some/most of the program and dislike other parts, but he’s certainly always worth the journey. “Greatest” is a worthless idea in music, but he’s one of the most individual interpreters and a splendid pianist, one of very first rank.

  17. It would not be the first time in history, that the truly great in some field shun publicity and are not recognized. Would one say that Schubert was a fake because few people knew of his music until after his premature death. Some people with very great gifts are natural hermits. Note that Sokolov did not call himself the greatest pianist, it was the perhaps reckless phrase of some admirer. But I bet he’s very good.

  18. Norman, would you apply the same criterion to Carlos Kleiber? Unlike you and me these are artistes and accordingly their quirks need to be respected. Probably it is the idea of there being a “greatest” that is questionable.

  19. Bob Burns says:

    Assigning superlatives in any of the arts is just silly.

    And betrays ignorance on the part of anyone who uses them.

  20. Michael P Scott says:

    Did you notice the date on the article: 26 April 2011?

    But a mighty interesting read, regardless.


  21. ? If he already lives in Madrid, doesn’t that mean that he has EU residency, so can’t he just travel to and work in the UK without a visa?

    • No

      Sokolov used to live in Northern Italy as a permanent resident status.

      This Visa ruling only applies to the UK.

      They (UK) insisted that he travelled to Rome in Person to get a Visa. Sokolov said he had better things to do with his time which I don’t blame him. These new restrictions were put in place after 9/11 & probably at the insistance of that country on the other side of the Atlantic which insists that everyone else follow & agrees with their rules!

      • Michael Schaffer says:

        I didn’t know that. So do UK citizens (or are they still called “subjects”?) now need a visa to travel to continental Europe?

        • No, neither do EU citizens. Sokolov has Russian citizenship, not EU.

          • That is quite correct

            Sorry I did not make this clear in my original message.

            When he lived in Italy he had permanent resident status & can travel freely around the whole of the EU – except the UK.

            The UK insist that Sokolov & any other foreign born person with permanent resident status in the EU obtains a Visa before being allowed in.

  22. Nigel Dodd says:

    Here is a clip of him playing in Venice about a month ago, apparently. Fascinating article, thanks.

  23. I agree that sticking the label “greatest living pianist” is pointless–for one thing, it just leads to a lot of ill-informed yammering. But there is no doubt in my mind that Grigory Sokolov is one of the finest musicians I have ever heard. If Norman needs to check it out for himself then I recommend listening to the live recording of the Art of Fugue. Even better, there is a superb DVD of a concert at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees with Beethoven in the first half and Prokofiev in the second half. The encores, Chopin and IIRC, Couperin, are especially memorable. I don’t think I have ever heard another pianist who could really bring out Beethoven’s dynamics so accurately…

  24. Though I never post comments on any website, I must do so now: personally, I agree that Grigory Sokolov may be the greatest pianist currently active. After having heard many recordings of his live performances, I finally traveled to Germany last summer to hear him play live. I thought I may be disappointed, as I over-hyped myself for the event. I wept through the Brahms-Handel Variations and the Op. 117. The mastery was quite simply overwhelming. An astounding technique, intelligence, and profound artistry, all in one. This is the sort of musician all pianists should strive to become.

  25. David Boxwell says:

    He doesn’t perform 300 recitals/concerts a year. He doesn’t do product placement. He doesn’t have a blog. He doesn’t have twitter account. He doesn’t have amajor label recording contract. He doesn’t run marathons. He doesn’t perform at state funerals or royal weddings. He doesn’t have a podcast. He doesn’t post to Youtube regularly to promote record sales.

    I never heard of the guy.

  26. I don’t know why recordings should be a factor here. We all know how easy it is to edit recordings, live or studio, and thus influence our impression of what a performance is really all about.

    What criteria make up the prerequisites for “the greatest living pianist”? Obviously, he or she must still be alive. :) Aside from that, there must be some other criteria?

    Who was the greater pianist…

    Claudio Arrau or Arthur Rubinstein?
    Wilhelm Kempff or Wilhelm Backhaus?
    Clara Haskil or Dinu Lipatti?
    Frédéric Chopin or Franz Liszt?
    Valentina Lisitsa or … ??? (oops!)

    (…continuation [i]ad absurdum[/i]…)

  27. A few months ago I heard about Grigory Sokolov and how good he was, those that like him said great things about him. So I did get his box set of cds and the DVD of his Paris recital. I continue to enjoy his playing, he puts his heart and soul into his interpretations. He plays in Europe to much acclaim, and I think he is pretty good almost to the S. Richter level.
    All these snide remarks about visas etc. is just superficial nonsense.

  28. Oleg Sherstiucoff says:

    Oh,come on, let us cut all that b******* with “the greatest living pianist in our visible Universe” – grow up boys and girls,will you…..Please!

  29. Fabio Fabrici says:

    Are there really people who rank pianists like they do horses at the race? Do these people, when they sit in concert and hear them play really think: “wow, that arpeggio was worth at least a bronze medal”?

    • Martin Locher says:

      I think it was Mr. Ringier, a Swiss media publisher, who once said that rankings aren’t serious journalism, but the readers like such little lists.

    • Couldn’t agree with you more. It is bizarre that -especially at this level – one could even dream of this type of discussion. Artists are also good at different things. Personally, I adore Sokolov. He is a jewel in the firmament of pianists. That is enough for me.

  30. Blue Pumpkin says:

    I’m sorry but I don’t understand this discussion. There is no one ‘greatest living’ pianist, nor even a ‘greatest pianist of his generation’ etc. I would always choose to hear Jorge Bolet in Liszt before any other pianist, Alfred Brendel in Beethoven and Schubert and so on. I don’t make any claims about them being the greatest but
    I simply say: ‘That’s the pianist I want to hear.’ I have to agree with Oleg that the discussion looks rather silly.

    On a related note there is a nice story about Josef Hofmann. He said to Rachmaninov; ‘There are some pianists in New York who claim to be the greatest pianists in America. There are some pianists in New York who claim to be the greatest pianists in the world. You are the greatest pianist in New York.’ Or words to that effect…

  31. Brendel is still alive.

  32. Carlos Fischer says:

    Sokolov is a great pianist. But if there is someone deserving to be recognized as the “greatest pianist today” , this is the incredible Marc-André Hamelin…..

  33. Martin Locher says:

    I’m not a fan of the phrasings “greatest living”, “greatest of all time” and so on. But apart from that, I can understand James’ enthusiastic Sokolov article.

    Sokolov fills concert halls without being a celebrity or a record company constantly advertising him around the internet. Although some his audience members are so kind to post some of his work on Youtube. More good pirate recordings of his recitals are needed!

    I heard Sokolov 3 times on visits to my homeland Switzerland. At least on two of those occasions, I was in music heaven. The 1st recital basically got me addicted to classical music and the last was the one ( reviewed by someone else here ) has been way too long ago. This draught shall end soon, hopefully in May, if I shall be where Sokolov is – which I might not be.

    The final sentence in above recital review, shall be the final one of my post here too:

    “If you haven’t heard Sokolov live and you love the piano, you owe it to yourself to do so.”

  34. Having had the pleasure of performing in orchestra with Sokolov, (Vancouver, Canada), Tchaik piano concerto, when he still travelled to North America, I probably would, to this day, have named him as the most astounding pianist I have heard or worked with in 25 years, if asked randomly. Of 3000 odd concerts I’ve been a part of – I remember that one so clearly. Spectacular artist – see him live if you ever get the chance.

  35. Pianists- even the greatest- are a dime a dozen.

  36. Fortunately for us, Abbey Simon lives over here half the year and still performs regularly.

  37. KarlJoos says:

    I guess that since he does not wish to perform in the UK, British people should do as much as they can to convince the world that he is not what he is: the greatest pianist alive.

  38. Sokolov regularly used to give concerts for my husband (Jeremy Hayes) at BBC Radio 3 at Pebble Mill. Also in Birmingham Town Hall. He performed works such a Chopin Studies and Prokoviev’s 7th Sonata during these concerts and somewhat surprisingly at the time, pieces by Couperin and Rameau. This was in the early 90s. He was an amazing pianist and certainly in my opinion rank amongst the finest I have heard. I also have the claim of having cooked and hosted a meal for him at our home in Birmingham for which we were joined by the lovely John Humphreys and his wife Joan. Sokolov was a charming, friendly man but obsessed with practising and it was difficult to drag him away from his beloved piano! I think James Rhodes shows himself as someone of credible intelligence by naming Sokolov as the ‘world’s greatest pianist’. Certainly for me, Sokolov is up there with the contemporary greats and I don’t use the term ‘great’ lightly…

  39. Nearly half of a century ago, 16-year-old Grisha Sokolov won the first prize in Tchaikovsky competition – younger than any winner either before or after. Those who had not heard of him until now apparently hadn’t paid any attention. He is of course a tremendous pianist. His uncompromising perfectionism reminds me a little of the great Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. The label of “the greatest” is of course arbitrary and silly, but there is no doubt that Grisha is definitely one of the best pianists of the last three or four decades.

  40. david owen says:

    Greatest Living Pianist cuts ending of Most Beautiful Chorale Arrangement.
    (cf S playing Ich ruf zu Dir on Youtube)

  41. Barbara Truman says:

    I feel moved to add a few words with regard to the ‘greatest living pianist’ tag applied to Grigory Sokolov without his knowledge (I am inclined to doubt the authenticity of the apparent ‘reply’ from him to James Rhodes’ article). Some of the comments directed towards Sokolov as a result, in particular those of Mr Lebrecht, are unnecessary, unkind and almost totally inaccurate. Despite having devoted the past sixteen years to listening to Sokolov’s live performances, of which I have attended almost 350 – in every major concert hall in Europe, in glorious palaces and castles, and also in humbler venues including small schools in Finland and a glorified cow shed in Lower Saxony, even I would never make such a meaningless claim on his behalf. All I do know is that during those sixteen years I have seen countless world class musicians and conductors among his audiences who later visited the artist’s room to pay their respects. Quite apart from being a truly great artist, Sokolov is extremely hard working, generous spirited and deserving of the utmost respect.

    • Well done Barbara!

      I’m at Town Hall tomorrow morning (11am) to hear Igor Levit play Diabelli Variations.

      See you soon, I hope.


  42. Bob Thurgood says:

    When someone applies the term “greatest” to any musician, he/she shows their own lack of musical intelligence. I have heard Heifetz, Menuhin, Piatagorsky, Rubenstein and Salmon in person, and each of them is a superlative MUSICAL artist. I have heard the Utah, Philadelphia, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Pittsburg and many other symphony orchestras in person, and each has marvelous MUSICAL qualities. I have turned pages in two concerts for the incomparable Paul Ulanofsky (spelling?), keyboardist for William Scheide’s “Bach Aria Group” and marvelled at their musical perfection. My vote for a most personable, genuine musical colossal genius currently performing is none other than Mark Salmon from Seattle. I have played a trio (Brahms Geistliches Wiegenlied) in concert (with several rehearsals) with him; I have heard his Chopin “Triple Concert” repertoire, in person, and no one, not even Horowitz, or Rubenstein, played with any more musicality, sensitivity and expression than Mr Salmon. He will dominate the piano stages for many years to come. But would I say that he is the “greatest” that ever lived? I don’t need to lower myself to that lack of musical education. Only society demands superlatives. Musicians enjoy the wonderful moments we can share with others, and let the world wander off in search of something they will never find. I am the charter violist with the Northwest String Quartet, since 1985 and have played in orchestras and ensembles of all kinds all my life. I am qualified to make the statements I have made.

  43. ‘Greatest living pianist’? Possibly but what is the purpose of such a statement – he won’t play over here for the time being so judgements can only be made on the strength of his recordings. I was lucky enough the meet him over dinner with friends several years ago – the night before his BBC Birmingham Pebble Mill recital. He also spent a day practising on our Steinway D (we were at work but boy, would I loved to have heard him practising – much more interesting than a concert!) and he told me all sorts of fascinating things about my piano, hidden serial numbers, etc….) A lovely man with no promotion of the ‘self’.

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