United Kingdom 2017 BBC PROMS – PCM7, Chopin: Pavel Kolesnikov (piano), Cadogan Hall, London, 28.8.2017. (CS)
Waltz in A flat major Op.69 No.1
Impromptu in A flat major Op.29
Waltz in C sharp minor Op.64 No.2
Fantasy-Impromptu in C sharp minor Op.66
Fantasy in F minor/A flat major Op.49|
Mazurka in B flat major KK IIa/3
Mazurka in G sharp minor Op.33 No.1
Mazurka in C major Op.56 No.2
Mazurka in F minor Op.68 No.4
Mazurka in A flat Op.50 No.2
Scherzo in E major Op.54
This Chopin programme by the 28-year-old Russian pianist, Pavel Kolesnikov, was superbly planned and executed. Chopin tended to publish his ‘miniatures’ in small groups, and here Kolesnikov constructed the whole from two complementary ‘sets’ built around a central trunk. We began with two pairs of key-related waltzes and impromptus, the last item of which – the Fantasy Impromptu in C# minor – served as a transition to the Fantasy in F minor/Ab major Op.49 which formed the keystone of the arch. Then, a sequence of mazurkas followed, concluding with the imaginative, eccentric Scherzo in E major Op.54.
In fact, so well thought-through was this recital, that Kolesnikov had even arranged for the keyboard action of the Cadogan Hall Yahama to be changed before he began the mazurkas – which BBC presenter Petroc Trelawny compared to the changing of an airplane’s engine at an altitude of 30,000 feet, a manoeuvre delivered by the four technicians with a ‘touch of the Generation Game’.
Kolesnikov’s rubato is both innate and of infinite variety and sophistication. Here, he exhibited an astonishing responsiveness to melodic nuance, implication and suggestion, and also to Chopin’s rhythmic elasticity: I tried to spot a pattern in the waltzes and mazurkas – a delayed second beat, a slight anticipation of the third? – but each time I thought I’d worked out what was giving the music its spring, it danced to a different step. The Russian pianist brought forth details in these familiar concert pieces that I did not know were there; and he did so with an air of spontaneity – he was really thinking and listening as he was playing, rather than relying on well-drilled muscle-memory.
The Ab major waltz with which Kolesnikov began demonstrated the flexibility of his expression perfectly. Initially, the main theme drooped with delicious languorous, its triplets occasionally tumbling down hurriedly; the second statement slipped into a dreaminess replete with rhythmic idiosyncrasies – he dared to dot a rhythm or two which Chopin writes straight. But, after an interlude, the theme was restated with greater fortitude, gathering speed as if rousing itself from its laziness, and it pushed onwards to an enlivened central dance which spun with easy grace: one could imagine whirling skirts and the sparkles of chandelier on wine glass flashing past fleet-footed couples. Finally, here the melody was again, slower but seemingly pulsing with an inner urgency which required extended fermatas to bring it to rest in the closing pianissimo.
There was an exciting airiness and unpredictability to Kolesnikov’s playing. The following Ab Impromptu Op.29 swept forwards with an impulsive accelerando, then withdrew into an introspective sostenuto, before once again propelling forwards with such lightness of touch it felt as if the notes were being blown by the wind.
Who knew there could be so much contrast within a single work lasting barely a few minutes? Similarly, the Waltz in C# minor Op.64/2 began with sombre yearning aching through the chromatic melodic descents, the left-hand offering a weary tread, before intoxicated, hypnotic circling whirled us into glorious melodising heralding the return of the opening melody, this time with grandeur and presence.
Kolesnikov was clearly thinking in large paragraphs. The last chord of the C# minor waltz had barely stopped ringing before he had launched into the Fantasy-Impromptu, its first portentous G# octaves extending the resolution of the previous Impromptu’s closing cadence. Now we had feverish agitation, though some excellent pedalling foregrounded the lower voice of the melody which emerged with captivating strength and warmth. This was the first time, too, that we beheld the power, somewhat motorised in tone, of the Yamaha’s lowest register, before the air cleared for a beautifully lucid cantilena of delicate trills and elegant, gentle ornaments. The rocking close suggested that the music had driven itself into a state of relaxed exhaustion, its tension expended.
The central F minor/Ab major Fantasy emerged from the mists of mystery – the eerie minor giving way to a warmer major, before further modulations shunted us to distant, somewhat disorientating lands. Kolesnikov spoke during the concert Chopin’s music being ‘abstract’ but needing to think about the ‘storyline’, and this piece embodied this idea: where was the story heading? There was a thrilling combination of freedom and logic, of air and weight – the light step of the marching army was transplanted by the tumbling tumults of dark rain clouds. I seem to be describing this playing with the sort of Tovey-esque volubility that I usually decry, but this playing really did send me searching for narratives. The final Adagio section purged the shadows, though an extended fermata – a laden silence – was needed before the closing Ab major waves could wash away all darkness;
Kolesnikov has recorded some of Chopin’s mazurkas for Hyperion, to great acclaim; here, he reminded us that each and every mazurka is, as he put it, special, different, polished. So, from the cheekiness of the Bb KK IIa/3, with its spritely insouciance, we moved to the G# minor Op.33/1 seeping with melancholy by turns restrained then impassioned. There followed the rustic quirkiness and independence of spirit of the C major Op.56/2, and the melodic searching of the F minor Op.68/4 which gradually found its lyrical feet. This sequence of mazurkas was perfect preparation for the mercurial eccentricity of the E major Scherzo Op.54, which balanced exuberance and jest, with sombre reflection and interiority.
There were a couple of moments during the recital when I wondered with Kolesnikov plays just a little too fast at times, at the expense of absolute clarity, but in the encore, the Grande Valse Brillante in Eb Op.18, his right-hand fingers chased each other with such lightning fleetness in the rapid repetitions that I buried any hint of misgiving.
Kolesnikov was a BBC Radio 3 Young Artist during 2014-16. My guest on this occasion remarked that he looks ‘so young’, his modest stage manner – and the dark-rimmed glasses, which repeated slip down his nose in the more vigorous episodes – belying his mere 28 years. But, despite his gentle diffidence, Kolesnikov has undoubted musical presence. And, wisdom too: he has declared that what he admires most in Chopin is the composer’s ‘combination of Romantic mind-set, the extremely refined clean, clear style, and an extraordinarily constructed mathematical mind’. All of these elements were communicated here, in a remarkable and memorable hour of effortless pianistic virtuosity and eloquence.