I first encountered the yoing Siberian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov at the Wigmore Hall in 2015 when he performed in a joint recital with his mentor Maria João Pires. In addition to a sensitive performance of Schumann’s Fantasy in C, Kolesnikov revealed himself to be a modest performer. Teacher and pupil between them created a very special ambiance of intimacy and mutual respect, for one another and the music they were playing.

Pavel Kolesnikov © Colin Way
Pavel Kolesnikov
© Colin Way

It was therefore a treat to start the new year with a solo performance by this fine young pianist, showcasing Debussy’s evergreen and ever-popular Préludes Book 1, with L’isle joyeuse to round off a most satisfying and engaging lunchtime recital.

In L’isle joyeuse, it was as if Kolesnikov had condensed all the sensitivity, musical colour and shading, wit and clarity of articulation revealed in the Préludes into a single piece. Debussy’s portrayal of a trip to Jersey (his “joyous isle”) was brought to life with both vigour and a delicacy of touch to achieve delightful washes of sound and a clear sense of the music’s narrative.

Debussy’s Préludes are amongst his most popular repertoire for the piano, Book 1 being the most well-known. When Debussy first published these works, he headed them with a number only, their titles being hidden at the foot of each piece. The intention clearly was that their stories, pictures and moods were revealed gradually to pianist and listener. In Kolesnikov’s performance, there was a similar sense of the music unfolding before us, with new voices and inner lines of melody revealed gradually or unexpectedly. In Danseuse de Delphes, there was a clear sense of two lines of music, yet the upper voice was so delicately enunciated that it seemed veiled, as if heard from afar. Similar intriguing revelations came in Les sons et les parfums tournant dans l’air du soir. Sounds wafted from the piano, and seemed to hang weightlessly in the air before drifting into nothingness. In Les Collines d’Anacapri, a lively dance prefigured the sprightly rhythms of L’isle joyeuse, while in Ce qu’a  vu le vent d’oeust, Kolesnikov banished the languorous, reflective tempi of the preceding Préludes and summoned up a tempest from deep within the piano, with rolling, rumbling bass figures suggesting leaves and branches tossed by a fierce West wind.

La cathédrale engloutie was an exercise in control and an opportunity for Kolesnikov to reveal his mastery of the piano in the more robust dynamic range. Debussy’s drowned cathedral rose from the Wigmore Hall Steinway with grandeur, an imposing edifice created from rich plangent chords, only to disappear again beneath the rolling waves, the theme heard from a distance.

The final two Préludes, La danse de Puck and Minstrels had the requisite wit and humour, and Kolesnikov’s body language indicated he was enjoying this music at least as much as we were.

Too often Debussy’s music is presented in a way that is over-pedalled and overly impressionistic (a term which Debussy despised when applied to his own music). What impressed me in Pavel Kolesnikov’s performance was his clarity, control, lightness of touch and musical understanding which revealed the hidden nuances and subtle embroideries in Debussy’s writing. His elegant, sensitive pianism created a concert which was highly engaging and deeply intimate.