LIMF Summer Piano Recital: Pavel Kolesnikov, 15th June 2019

For those who read this and were sadly unable for various reasons to attend this extraordinary piano recital, put on by the Leicester International Festival, let me paint the scene. Early on in the week there seemed to be concern about the possible size of the audience but on the night they poured in to fill the hall and require the Museum staff urgently to bring in extra seating. Then, after all the kerfuffle, the lights faded until the audience was in a total darkness save for a beam lighting the piano stool.  Enter the pianist, the Russian Pavel  Kolesnikov, a young man of slight build who walked almost diffidently to the stage, smiled and bowed briefly, sat on the piano stool  and without any further ado simply started playing, with the clear intention as suggested from the programme that most of the music to be played was to be listened to without a break, thus making it an ongoing exploration of musical similarities and differences , all of it hopefully amounting in total to a musical statement of aspects of the human condition.

Well, to begin with I have to say that I was sceptical despite the thought that had gone into the presentation. In the opening work, Brahms’ Intermezzo Op 117 No.1 , I felt there was a tendency to try to invest each passing phrase with intense meaning, to make what I felt to be in essence the simple  loveliness  of a Lullaby carry the burden of being the opening statement of a profound  journey. Following on from that, the opening  movement of Beethoven’s early Sonata Op.7  had moments in which the ‘drama’ seemed to be accentuated so that the onward impetus of the movement was almost interrupted. It seemed all a bit of a rather self conscious attempt to make the music  fit the larger scheme of things.

And then something happened. In particular the last two movements of the Sonata simply took wing. It was as if the pianist had relaxed and was beginning to find the measure of the recently refurbished Museum  piano, and what one heard was astonishing. Here was for the first time in the evening unalloyed delight. There was a rippling treble, sometimes songlike, sometimes fleet of foot, a dramatic bass on occasions, all conveying perfectly the composer’s joy at discovering and revelling in the full extent of his genius. For the first time in the evening I felt artist and composer totally at one and that here sitting at the keyboard was a pianist of great talent

So I approached the long second half full of anticipation , an anticipation which was not disappointed. Indeed, what followed was for me an experience I suspect never to be forgotten. Partly the reason for this was that for 40 minutes or so in the darkness I listened, between the 2nd and 3rd of Brahms’ Intermezzi, given performances that penetrated to the heart of things, to a stream of the most wonderful music quite unknown to me. The range of sounds which the pianist conjured up in the five pieces of Louis Couperin , four of them arranged in a Suite ,was simply astonishing. Yes, this music was written for harpsichord and one suspected that these performances might horrify  the Baroque purists given the quite wonderful  richness emanating from the piano. Indeed one review of this artist’s recording of this repertoire was less than enthusiastic simply on this point.

Well, all I can say is that I was reminded of a great conductor’s deliberately incendiary description ,of course to be taken with a pinch of salt,  that the sound of the harpsichord reminded him of a skeleton rattling  in a cupboard.  (A famous harpsichordist, one has to say,  triumphantly gave the lie to this two years ago in Leicester.)  However,  I was also reminded of another quip from this same conductor’s merry wit in regard to a very famous Baroque composer whom he described as far too wedded ‘to counterpoint and Protestant counterpoint at that’. Well, all my reservations about what I can sometimes take to be the sternly baroque were swept away in these performances which had a most wonderful range of colour and which spoke with a remarkable directness to the 21st Century. This was music at times of deep almost romantic feeling and throughout of  a quite ravishing beauty in these arrangements .

Indeed, by the time we reached Tchaikovsky’s Five pieces I was, I think, in the gloom undergoing almost an out of body experience. In any case the dark made noting down anything out of the question. Hence any pretence of detailed appraisal foundered and I was simply swept away by the range of these supposed miniatures. I just surrendered to the pianist’s astonishing  playing.  Indeed, by the time we reached the resting point in Brahms’  final Intermezzo and the last notes died away I felt that I had had a musical experience that had not often been replicated . Perhaps it was the darkness which encouraged such thoughts. One could not but concentrate completely.

However, one thing was certain. Leicester had met in Pavel Kolesnikov a truly remarkable artist and hopefully one who will return before long. I can reveal  that he , as not a few  before him, was obviously delighted with everything about the venue so perhaps that wish will become reality not too far into the future.