Pavel Kolesnikov is an engrossing musician. He is perhaps the most introspective and meditative pianist that I know of, and with his deep and delicate sensitivity to sound, he is able to bring out a sophisticated gradation of colours particularly in the quieter ranges of the instrument. He is a poet of the piano, rather than say, a novelist or a storyteller. He relishes in presenting carefully polished miniatures, such as the Louis Couperin pieces with which he opened this hour-long recital entitled “From Grandeur to Intimacy”, as part of the London Piano Festival.

Pavel Kolesnikov © Viktor Erik Emanuel | Kings Place
Pavel Kolesnikov
© Viktor Erik Emanuel | Kings Place

Kolesnikov selected five pieces from Couperin’s oeuvre for harpsichord, threading them together in the manner of a suite. The four dance movements were all in the minor, and his focus seemed more on the “intimacy” rather than Baroque “grandeur”. The opening Allemande was particularly mesmerising: it begins with a stark open fifth, after which it fluctuates between minor and major, rather like flickering candlelight, and he brought out these shifts exquisitely. Apart from the lively C minor gigue, the dances were elegant but pensive and there was always a sense of melancholy in his playing.

He concluded the set with his signature piece, Tombeau de Mr de Blancrocher (which I’ve heard him play on previous occasions), Couperin’s beautiful lament to a celebrated lutenist. For eight minutes, he had us totally transfixed: it’s a sort of a meditative monologue, and he unfolded this music with simplicity, with little pedal, and with a sense of fragility. When the theme was repeated in different registers, he made it sound as if it were on the different manuals of the harpsichord. He certainly has a refined way of playing Baroque repertoire: he respects Baroque performance practice, especially in the ornamentation and crispness of touch, yet the playing is often quite pianistic in a Romantic way, with his use of legato and pedal.

Before we could get our breath back after the spellbinding Tombeau, Kolesnikov segued into Schumann’s C major Fantasie, jumping two centuries with evident ease. Interestingly, he comments in the programme that what connects the two composers is that they were good at “finding grandeur in the intimate”. Schumann’s Fantasie, a deeply emotional work, certainly has its moments of grandeur and intimacy, and Kolesnikov really savoured the intimate and tender moments. The highlight of the piece for me was the final few bars of the first movement (where Schumann from quotes from Beethoven’s song-cycle An die ferne Geliebte) in which he created such tenderness and longing that I could barely breathe. It was astonishingly sensitive playing.

There was a free improvisatory feel to the first movement and he seemed to play it as a string of character pieces, each with its own colour and emotions, and less bound to the structure of the work. The middle movement was taken quite swiftly and crisply but with plenty of energy and technical flamboyance. At times I felt that his tonal palette is less varied in the louder range; for example when the opening theme returns at the end in fff, I wanted a deeper, more impassioned sound. In the final movement, he brought us back to Schumann’s dreamy and introspective realm with the expansive, yearning arpeggio passage that frames the movement. Here he truly found the grandeur in intimacy, coming full circle from the Couperin.

He concluded the concert with one encore – another meditative piece – Brahms’ Intermezzo Op.117 no.1. What was striking was how he emphasised the dark intensity in the middle section, as opposed to the outer sections which he played with light transparency. Was it too much introspection in one recital? Perhaps, but when played with such poetry and sensitivity, one could only immerse oneself wholly in his sound world.