Grigory Sokolov is among the most important Russian pianists to have emerged from the latter half of the 20th century. His career has both suffered and thrived from restraints foisted on him by Soviet authorities: like other iconic Russian keyboard giants of the past, in particular Sviatoslav Richter and Lazar Berman, he was prohibited from appearance in the West for a time, but when he finally debuted in western Europe and the United States, his career took a meteoric upswing, with Sokolov suddenly in heavy demand in the world's major concert halls. Another aspect to Sokolov's career that has added to his charismatic though eccentric persona has been his general avoidance of the recording studio. Most of his recordings are drawn from live concerts, and they attest to his virtuosity and interpretive genius in unusual but generally conservative fare: while his repertory takes in Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Brahms, Rachmaninov, and Prokofiev, it also includes Byrd, Couperin, Rameau, and Froberger. Sokolov has recorded for several labels, including Melodiya, Opus 111, and Naïve.
Sokolov was born in Leningrad, Russia, on April 18, 1950. At five he was playing the piano and two years later began studies with Liya Zelikhman. At 15, as a student at the Leningrad Conservatory under Moisey Khalfin, he captured first prize in the prestigious Russian National Competition. More impressive, he won the Tchaikovsky International Competition in 1966, at 16, still the youngest pianist ever given that most coveted of competition medals.
In the wake of his victory Sokolov became an instant celebrity in his homeland, appearing as soloist with the major orchestras and as recitalist in the most important concert halls. But he was not allowed to concertize in the West by Soviet authorities until the late '80s. In the meantime he taught piano at the Leningrad Conservatory from 1975 as an adjunct to his concert and recording activity. In 1990 his Paris debut was a sensation, and he became an overnight celebrity in the United States as well. Sokolov continued to impress his admirers: his November 2006 concerts in Paris and Dusseldorf, playing the same program of Bach, Beethoven, and Scriabin works in each city, drew rave reviews.
However, for much of his career, recorded artifacts of Sokolov's work were sparse. He recorded some albums for Opus 111 and for Naïve in the 1990s and early 2000s, but still generally declined to record with the frequency that his celebrity would make possible. He believes that each performance is unique, and that to repeat a performance would be to diminish it. Several live recordings appeared, including one of Beethoven's Piano Sonata in B flat major, Op. 106 ("Hammerklavier"), made at the 2013 Salzburg Festival. The situation changed for Sokolov lovers in late 2014, however, when the pianist signed a contract with Deutsche Grammophon allowing the release of selected live performances on CD. The premier album in this series appeared in 2015, featuring recitals devoted to Schubert and Beethoven, and a 2017 album, with performances of concertos by Mozart and Rachmaninov, included a documentary disc by Russian producer Nadia Zhdanova, along with poetry by the pianist's late wife, Inna Sokolova.