By common consent there are good pianists, great pianists, and one or two who rank as gods. Among the godlike is the Russian star Grigory Sokolov, whose concerts are the sort of dates that people fly around the world to catch. And last week many did, including me, when he performed a slightly offhand, self-absorbed but magisterial recital at the Malta Festival.
He only ever gives recitals these days, having given up concertos on the grounds that orchestras don’t offer the rehearsal time he wants. This is a man who doesn’t compromise – and never has since, years ago, he won the coveted Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow at the crazily young age of 16. Any other pianist would have shot to international stardom. But not Sokolov. He all but disappeared and only started serious touring in his 40s, when the world took note and was amazed. Not that he gives the world too much encouragement.
In Malta – playing in the 16th-century infirmary of the Order of St John, now turned into a concert hall – he barely seemed to notice that he had an audience at all, in an uncompromising programme (Haydn, Schubert) that was neither glamorous nor sensational, nor out to please.
But there was total mastery: a sense of genius at work that had us standing after every encore. And as always with a Sokolov recital, there were lots of encores, done without a smile, without the slightest sense of relaxation, but at least a token gesture in response to the applause.
If Sokolov was an enigma, so was the whole Malta Festival, which seemed to be run by Russians for Russians, and feature largely Russian (or Armenian) performers playing Russian music. Whatever was going on there, it evaded my attempts to find out. But it did produce a fine account by Maxim Vengerov of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, played with an orchestra I’d heard about but never actually heard: the Armenian State Symphony.
Until last year this ensemble was called the Armenian State Youth Orchestra; its players, still relatively young, have been together since they were students some 12 years ago, when fellow student Sergey Smbatyan formed them into a band for himself to conduct.
Growing up as a group has given them shared instincts that produce performances conspicuously of one mind. And Smbatyan, now 30, is dynamic: a potential Gergiev, with a Gergiev-like technique – flat of the hand, no baton, and in sweeping circles as though washing down an elephant. It’s not precise or tidy, but it works. He makes things happen. And I’d guess he’s on the threshold of a sizeable career.