Pavel Kolesnikov: Technically Adept, But Lacking Heft

United StatesUnited States Mozart, Schumann, Scriabin, Beethoven: Pavel Kolesnikov (piano), Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York, 24.3.2015 (SSM)Mozart: Fantasy in C minor, K.475
Schumann: Fantasie in C major, Op. 17
Scriabin:Vers la flamme, Op. 72
Piano Sonata No 4 in F-sharp major, Op. 30
Beethoven:  Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111


There is a little-known 1961 documentary entitled Susan Starr: Portrait of a Pianist which follows the travails of Ms. Starr in the days leading up to and including her performance as a finalist in the Dimitri Mitropoulos Competition. Three young soloists perform their set pieces, and it doesn’t take long to tell who will be the gold, silver and bronze medalists. All three were pretty much on the same level technically, but charisma and charm tipped the judges in favor of one of the competitors, the soon-to-be-famous Agustín Anievas; a muscular presentation by Marta Pariente landed the silver. Ms. Starr (suffering as well with a bad cold) just didn’t have it that night, but she did go on to win the silver prize in the more prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition in 1962. Both Starr and Pavel Kolesnikov, who competed in the 2012 Tchaikovsky, had the misfortune of going up against known talents: Starr against Ashkenazy and Ogden, and Kolesnikov against Daniil Trifanov.

 There is no doubt that Kolesnikov has mastered the piano beyond what one might expect any protégé to achieve. His fingers negotiate the keyboard as if it were the easiest and most natural thing to do, and he manages tricky cross-hand and hand-over-hand playing without any sign of strain. He showed no fear in the difficult sections of the Schumann Fantasie. In Scriabin’s Vers la flame, dynamic markings were followed as written, and the Sonata No. 4 was played flawlessly. Both pieces, though, lacked the intensity and spirituality that are inherent in every work by this eccentric composer.

 It has been said over and over how Mozart piano sonatas are rarely played by an accomplished pianist who can do justice to his genius. Andras Schiff recently showed himself to be a rare decoder of Mozart’s music. Playing the “Beginner’s” sonata, K. 545, Schiff drew out hidden voices, managed to find its inner seriousness and came close to convincing me that, simple as it sounds, it really is a “late” work sharing the maturity of the other late works on that program. Kolesnikov found nothing personal in Mozart’s very personal  music. Every note was played exactly as written, four-square. With so many opportunities to make the music his own and with so much room to do this, Kolesnikov followed the straight and narrow. The many sudden shifts in dynamics yielded no surprises; segues between parts were simply rests rather than dramatic suspensions. To (mis)quote a song from the 1960s, “He played all the notes and sang all the words but never quite learned the song.”

The Schumann Fantasie in C major is one of the great works of the Romantic era. It is to Schumann what the Sonata in B minor is to Liszt. The Fantasie is filled with raw emotion and almost asks to be played wildly, but Kolesnikov failed to communicate the work’s tragic nature.

Most artists realize that certain works in the repertory should not be taken casually, that they reveal themselves only after years of exposure. Casals waited ten years before he felt he could do justice to the Bach Suites for Cello. Beethoven’s final piano sonata might not have been the right one to choose, but I will say that Kolesnikov almost pulled if off . The late sonatas are experimental works that have no precedents and, as a result, they allow a wider range of discretion. Technical prowess can go a longer way than in most of the other Beethoven sonatas, and that was the case here. Perhaps it was because this was the last piece on the program, but Kolesnikov loosened up a bit. It wasn’t the deepest interpretation, but it did cast a brighter light than the previous pieces had.

Not every talented musician has to emulate a Trifanov, who may be too revealing of his  emotional state, but now that Kolesnikov has the skills required to play anything he chooses, his choices should be more deeply thought out.

Stan Metzger  



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