James Rhodes

The greatest living pianist

Why, despite his devoted fans, Grigory Sokolov won’t play live in Britain

Why, despite his devoted fans, Grigory Sokolov won’t play live in Britain

Grigory Sokolov is a pianist in his fifties; he is overweight, Russian, sleeps only three or four hours a night, is a strict vegan and is obsessed with the occult. He can calculate with one glance the number of seats in an empty concert hall and remembers instantly, to within an inch, where a piano used to be on a stage he hasn’t played on for years.

Sokolov is also the reason we must overhaul, right now, the ridiculous visa system that prevents so many foreign artists from performing in the UK. Lord Clancarty started a debate on the matter in the Lords this week, and cited Sokolov as a reason.

Clancarty was right. Grisha Sokolov is the greatest living pianist in the world — that’s a bold claim, I know, but he manages to do things with a piano that should be categorised under ‘not humanly possible’. In a career spanning over 35 years (he won the Tchaikovsky Competition, the greatest accolade an aspiring pianist can achieve, at the unheard of age of 16) he has released only six or seven recordings — all live, and not ‘live’ as in ‘I’ve cobbled together the best bits of a series of concerts and rehearsals’, but the real deal: one take, one concert, one huge gamble.

He won’t play with orchestras (not enough rehearsal time), won’t play on a piano that is more than five years old (the sound is too important), demands the absolute strictest piano regulation (using Nasa-level technicians who are not allowed to touch his piano stool) and requires at least twice as much rehearsal time as any other pianist (to include several hours with the technician/tuner).

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