Many will tell you that Bach’s Goldberg Variations are the peak of a pianistic career, to be scaled gradually over the course of a lifetime. At the age of 32, Pavel Kolesnikov appears to have reached the summit considerably ahead of schedule. At least, that is, on the evidence of last night’s concert at All Saints Church, Dulverton, under the auspices of the Two Moors Festival.

Pavel Kolesnikov
© Clive Barda

Kolesnikov’s interpretation is founded on an exceptionally solid technique, whose outstanding feature is detailed control of the articulation and weighting of each note. Of the tens of thousands of notes in the Goldbergs, you sense that here is a pianist who calculates every one individually for its weight and the speed of attack and release. He can run notes together to form a smooth current, he can hammer down weighty chords or he can make a succession of staccato notes into a phrase that trips merrily off the keyboard. Or he can do more than one of these at the same time with different hands. It gives him an extensive palette of colours with which to turn musical notes into mental images.

Kolesnikov’s personality at the piano is introspective, always searching for the crucial elements of the piece he is playing. The Goldberg Variations are a perfect fit for that personality: watching Kolesnikov play, we see him in the process of trying to find meaning and we follow him. Whether or not the mental images he engenders in me are the same as his own – and I have no way of knowing – they are certainly extremely strong.

Under Kolesnikov’s fingers, the opening Aria wandered, as yet uncertain of the direction it will take. The steps were crisp and brisk, but there was always a slight lack of confidence, the possibility of retracing one’s steps and starting on a different path. And those paths, as we were to discover through the thirty variations that followed, took us on a journey of a lifetime’s memories, each variation conjuring a different mood for a different stage of life.

There was optimism, with major key trills and skips bringing cheer to our hearts. There was threat embodied in imposing heavy chords. Torrents of semiquavers could bring light-heartedness. The same semiquavers, slowed down and smoothed out, told us of the times when life’s course was running smoothly. Variation 25, a stately Minuet, incarnated mature well-being – perhaps with a touch of self-satisfaction. In an extraordinary Variation 26, Kolesnikov brought rubato, shaping of phrases and weighting between the two hands to create romanticism highly reminiscent of Chopin – my late father would have described it as “Chopped up Bach”. Finally, the Aria returned: the same music as before, the same beauty of phrase and crispness of articulation, but the uncertainty had gone. The end of our journey was in sight and we knew the path that we were to tread.

The venue deserves a mention: a large English parish church might not seem like an ideal place for solo piano music, given that so many churches have long reverberation times that are delicious for choral music but turn intricate passagework to mush. All Saints Church, however, is wider than most and has a great deal of wood vaulting: its acoustic was near-perfect in adding warmth to the piano sound while allowing it to remain clear.

At the end of this music-inspired journey through our memories, we left the church into a surprisingly mild October evening, conscious of having witnessed a truly special piece of music-making.

David's press trip to Exmoor was funded by The Two Moors Festival