A Pianist’s Rare Visit to New York Reveals His Personality
Some pieces in the piano repertoire are as revealing as Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations as a performer. With few hints of pace or articulation, they force constant interpretation. It’s hard to think of a better personality test.
Except, perhaps, programming. A pianist’s choice of what to play can be more illuminating than the performance itself. A recital may focus on a single composer or group a few sonatas together. But there is another way, more imaginative, to compile something like a playlist.
Over two evenings at the Park Avenue Armory This week in Manhattan, pianist Pavel Kolesnikov shared his artistry with both avenues, with one concert dedicated to “Goldbergs” and another inspired by Modelli’s Nocturnal Collage. Joseph Cornell’s collection “Celestial Navigation”.
Kolesnikov, a Russian-born pianist who lives in England, is already a stalwart of the London music scene at the age of 34. He has recorded “The Goldbergs” and They performed well Choreographer-performer Ann Teresa de Kerzmacher. But he has been virtually absent from the New York stages.
It shouldn’t be. His two Armory recitals showcased pianism of poetic freedom, assured interpretive choices and a DJ’s ear for subtle musical connections.
His Bach was brazenly argued—the kind of performance that invites dissent but is defended so convincingly, even detractors can’t help but appreciate it. His take on “Goldberg,” followed by 30 variations and a return to the original theme, was openly personal, the score more like a coloring book outline filled with the palette of Kolesnikov’s creations. .
In Bach’s mathematical construction, the 32 movements are mirrored in the aria’s 32 measures, which are divided into two 16-bar sections that both repeat—a structure that repeats itself throughout. Like most pianists, Kolesnikov approached the first run of each passage in a straightforward manner, with clarity that rendered the precise architecture of the score in vivid detail.
On repetition, however, he seems to put this structure to the stress test. Close-continuous pedalwork shades phrases with anachronistic nuance. One variation may bleed into another, such as placing the final G of the fifth into the first measure of the sixth, which begins on the same note. The Quodlibet variation emerges from a haze of sustained, hammered chords at the end of the 29th.
It was a “Goldbergs” reading that is too modern for historically informed performance purists, yet far from dull. A divisive recording of Lang Lang. I didn’t remember, until I returned to my notes for Kolesnikov’s second recital, that I had described his treatment of the aria’s return as Chopinesque—a reference to his program “Salesian Navigation.” (after Joseph Cornell) had only one word to describe it.”
Cornell’s sculptural work—a silent fascination with how humans have made sense of the night sky, in terms of mythology and science—doesn’t lend itself quite as well to musical translation as, say, Kandinsky. An artificial painting of will do. But Kolesnikov’s program is cleverly uniform in its phrasing, the unlikely pairings uniting not in aesthetics or in time but in something higher.
It’s always refreshing to see musicians interacting with other mediums, and this isn’t a first for Kolesnikov: he’s even arranged a recital inspired by Proust. As a conceptual thinker he resembles the pianist Vikingur Ólafsson. But when Olafsson Approaches programming like an essayist. By presenting a constellation argument, Kolesnikov creates a mood. His performance at the Armory was a gathering of born poets.
At the center of the evening was a trio of suites that followed a basic construction: a Messiaen piano solo, a Chopin Nocturne and a Messiaen piece again. Around them was a Pavin by Louis Couperin (not the more famous Francois). Ravel’s “Une Barque sur l’Océan”; and Thomas Adès’s Dowland-inspired “Darknesse Visible.” Then, in the second half, Kolesnikov closes with Schubert’s D. 935 Impromptus.
Spanning nearly 350 years of musical history, these pieces likely do not belong to the same sound world. But Kolesnikov pushed them as close as possible – again applying modern pedalwork to the Baroque, and using Chopin as a stylistic anchor. The result was often disorienting; Messiaen’s colors were more flamboyant, and Schubert leaned toward romanticism with blunter sentiments.
Kolesnikov’s blanket somnambulism also removes parts of the storm as a memory and, in one of the Chopin Nocturnes, an “I could dance all night” moment of joy. These were idiosyncratic interpretations in the service of a greater whole.
As in “Goldberg,” some of this could be seen as an insult. Probably. What is indisputable, however, is that given two opportunities to express himself in New York, Kolesnikov came out and announced what kind of pianist he was: fully, confidently, eloquently. .