By Cathy Fuller

Friday, April 15

Hello Boston!

Another sun-drenched morning in Spain, and I'm slipping through the streets of Madrid on a private bus with twenty-four happy cohorts, all passionate supporters of public broadcasting. We're on a Learning Tour, and our wanderlust has drawn us to the miraculous beauties of this gorgeous country. We arrived at the stunning Terminal Four at Madrid-Barajas airport on Friday morning the 8th:

And we've already seen Spanish operetta (Zarzuela), palaces, cathedrals, and masterpieces by El Greco, Picasso and Goya. Today we headed south to the ancient city of Toledo. And tonight, Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov played Bach and Schumann (and six encores!).

I'll be sending you postcards of our discoveries - little glimpses that I hope will give you a taste of our time here.

The air is soft as summer. 76 degrees. I feel like I've finally begun to breathe again. (Winter, I've decided, is a prolonged period of shallow breaths.)

Many of us have never been here, and Madrid has seduced and surprised us. The city itself has three million inhabitants, with another three million in its suburbs. Something I can't explain creates an atmosphere of contentment - even in the lively and ever-present crowds (and even with political turmoil, economic distress and a good dose of corruption woven into the whole tapestry).

Our guide throughout the trip is Mervin Samuel, a happy transplant to Spain from Great Britain some forty years ago. He now has the country in his veins. Along with him, for the Madrid portion of our stay, is our casually brilliant guide Mauricio, who tells stories about Kings, Queens, El Greco and Goya as if he knew them all personally.

Is it really possible for the world to look like this?

That's ancient Toledo, home of the great painter El Greco for the latter part of his life. Toledo is on a mountaintop, surrounded on three sides by a bend in the Tagus River, with its spectacular Gothic cathedral that could send you away hyperventilating if you don't keep your eyes from taking in too many of its gilded spectacles, like this piece from the Cathedral.

After breathing in the sunny air and deep blue skies of Toledo, we headed to the Auditorio Nacional de Musica, a fairly recent concert hall with seats surrounding the stage and a beautiful, clear acoustic.

We finished the evening with sore palms from all the clapping.

In 1966, the jury of the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition, headed by Emil Gilels, unanimously awarded Grigory Sokolov the Gold Medal. Now 61, he is a pianist held in the deepest regard by other pianists around the globe, and he is passionately followed by millions of pianophiles who know that he doesn't travel to England or the United States. It's a rare thrill to hear him live. We were a lucky bunch tonight.

Sokolov spends little time bowing, and even less time waiting to begin. He started tonight with Bach's Italian Concerto, a piece that I've found frequently unrewarding because it's such a challenge for pianists to find the purity of energy and sound that it needs. Tonight I heard more than I knew was there!

The outer movements are bursting with rhythmic vivacity. The voices are gleefully woven together with a bright, propulsive cheer that requires exquisite control and understanding. Sokolov has a unique way of giving his weight to the piano for a round and burnished sound, while teasing the hammers into hyper-speeds with the quickness and height of his hand gestures. These two ingredients make his playing intensely communicative, so that the piano can speak, sing, whisper and roar in a way I've never quite heard before.

The middle movement of the Italian Concerto features a soft, insistent throbbing in the left hand that Sokolov urged from the piano like a distant and vulnerable heartbeat. Above the pulse sails one of Bach's unending, golden lines - always close to heartbreak, but ever intact. Sokolov never got too close to the breaking point. Maybe he could have ventured a little nearer the edge, but the effect was gorgeous. I felt as if I'd witnessed a silver thread making its way through the stillness of a sad episode in a larger life.

The last movement was a riot of pearly, thrusting scales. And within them, instantaneous changes of dynamic and surprises of balance, all within the frame of a sturdy and joyous beat.

Sokolov's quick hand gestures are magically partnered with a subtle and expert use of the soft and sostenuto pedals. The dance the hammers do give the music a warm and crystalline energy that worked beautifully in the French Suite in B minor, BWV 831. It also worked beautifully in Schumann. The Humoresque, written when Schumann was 29, is full to overflowing with the swings of mood and temperament that make him so intriguing. Sokolov let the melancholy unfurl in Schumann's touching tunes and then dug into the treacherous dotted leaps with a kind of perfect abandon. On top of it all, if it matters, he didn't miss a note.

After the Four Pieces, Op. 32, also by Schumann, the audience began a round of insistent cheering that brought Sokolov back six times. He played Scarlatti, Couperin, Brahms, and two Chopin preludes. If the lights hadn't been brought up after the sixth encore, they'd have demanded six more, I'm sure!

I'll have more soon - Segovia, the Prada Museum, the birth of Modern Art, and Zarzuela! In the meantime, here are a few more photos of Madrid and Toledo. The first is a scenic view of Toledo. The second is one of the many gorgeous fountains in that city. And the third is the magnificent Mayor's Mansion of Madrid.

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