Teacher and pupil took the stage at London’s Wigmore Hall in a joint concert by Maria João Pires and Pavel Kolesnikov featuring late works by Schubert and Beethoven, and Schumann’s love letter in music to Clara Wieck, the Fantasy in C, Opus 17.

Pavel Kolesnikov © Colin Way
Pavel Kolesnikov
© Colin Way

Pavel Kolesnikov, the young Siberian pianist who has already garnered many prizes and much praise for his playing, is a soloist of the Music Chapel in Brussels, studying with Maria João Pires as part of her ‘Partitura Project’ which offers a benevolent relationship between artists of different generations and seeks to thwart the “star system” by offering an alternative approach in a world of classical music too often dominated by competitions and professional rivalry. In keeping with the spirit of the Partitura Project, the pianists shared the piano in two works for piano four-hands by Schubert and each remained on the stage while the other performed their solo. From the outset, this created a rather special ambience of support and encouragement. 

The evening began with Schubert’s Allegro in A minor D947 “Lebensstürme”, a work written just six months before his death in autumn 1828, and directly after the Fantasy in F minor, with which the recital closed. No gentle easing into the concert, the work shares its key with several of Schubert’s darkest piano sonatas and its mood is generally terse and bleak, offset by a beautiful hymn-like second subject. With four hands at the piano, the textures are richer, more orchestral, and the scoring offers more scope for some intricate counterpoint. This was a robust and upright performance, tautly focused. Kolesnikov, taking the primo part, produced an elegant tone and delicacy of touch in the more reflective sections, and both pianists displayed sensitive voicing, and were alert to the rapid fluctuations of Schubert’s emotional landscape.

Returning to the stage with his mentor for her solo performance, at first it appeared that Pavel Kolesnikov might act as page-turner for Maria Joao Pires, but instead he sat quietly at the side of the stage, observing and listening to his teacher’s performance. This had the effect of shrinking the Wigmore Hall into a salon where we might observe the intimacy of teacher and pupil at work together.

The opening movement of Beethoven’s final sonata was delivered with a dark turbulence, its violent energy only just held in check as if poised on the cusp of anarchy as Pires combined immense control and emotional depth. In contrast, the Arietta unfolded in a series of wondrous variations, their individual characters and relationships to one another highlighted by Pires’ sensitive, thoughtful approach. When she rose to take her bow, Kolesnikov joined her and courteously escorted her from the stage.

Maria João Pires © Felix Broede | DGG
Maria João Pires
© Felix Broede | DGG
In the second half we were able to enjoy Pavel Kolesnikov’s artistry as the soloist in Schumann’s Fantasy in C major. Dedicated to Clara Wieck, it contains the full sweep of Schumann’s emotions, its obsessive passion moving forward, seemingly headlong, only to fall back, over and over again. This was a deeply romantic account, with a richly-coloured tonal palette and nobility in the grander passages, offset by tenderness and warmth in the more introspective sections which combined into an absorbing and convincing whole.

The concert closed with both pianists returning to the piano for Schubert’s Fantasy in F minor. One of the most popular works for piano four hands, the Fantasy was dedicated to Countess Karoline Esterházy von Galánta, with whom Schubert had been in love. Like the Schumann Fantasy before it, this work contains the broad sweep of emotions, from the plaintive song of its opening (reprised at the close) to the Largo which harks back to the Beethoven Sonata with its taut dotted rhythms, and the Scherzo whose D major trio offers some release of all the pent up feelings. An atmospheric performance imbued with poignancy, drama and responsive ensemble playing, it was the perfect vehicle for the pianists’ individual and combined talents.