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
, 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 a 2017 album, with performances of concertos by Mozart
, included a documentary disc by Russian producer Nadia Zhdanova, along with poetry by the pianist's late wife, Inna Sokolova.