Pianism is a broad church. One end of the spectrum is epitomised by Lang Lang: these are the heirs of the young Franz Liszt, the make-em-swoon showmen dazzling audiences with their prowess on the keyboard and wearing their hearts on their sleeves. At the other end is Pavel Kolesnikov. A slim, pale figure in ill-fitting Clark Kent glasses who seems far younger than his 29 years, Kolesnikov looks the antithesis of the flamboyant virtuoso. But looks can be deceptive.

Pavel Kolesnikov © Eva Vermandel
Pavel Kolesnikov
© Eva Vermandel

In every piece that he plays, you can see Kolesnikov searching for the crucial notes: somewhere in that wash that spans every register of the piano, there is a phrase that defines what makes this music special, and Kolesnikov is going to find it and bring it into focus for the listener. Maybe, as in his opening piece at Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Brahms Intermezzo no. 1, it’s the fourth note in a four-note harmony that sounds as if it was written in the 20th century, not the 19th. Maybe, as in the first movement of the Beethoven Piano Sonata no. 4 in E flat major, it’s a pair of notes in the upper register that repeat, bell-like, to form the frame on which the musical tracery is hung. In the suite that Kolesnikov has assembled from Louis Couperin’s keyboard works, it’s a lute-like strum that takes you back to imagined evenings in Baroque palaces. Whatever Kolesnikov has chosen, he brings it to the fore with subtlety, just enough to grab your attention without overpowering whatever else he is playing.

Especially in late romantic works like the Brahms Intermezzi, the way in which rubato is used is a matter of highly personal taste, and there were times when Kolesnikov’s rubato didn’t feel right to me. But what blew me away was the excellence of his control over dynamics. Overall, the evening’s programme was of quiet, reflective music, and this was a pianist who employed great delicacy for most of the music. But he certainly didn’t shy away from violence when the occasion demanded, his hands striking the keyboard from high to produce extreme attack. And he could make bring on or relax the intensity suddenly or slowly: sometimes you realised that you were under an onslaught of thick timbre without being quite aware of how it had crept up on you.

With some help from Queen Elizabeth Hall’s renewed acoustic, Kolesnikov’s Beethoven brought me in mind of hearing Ronald Brautigam play Beethoven on a replica Conrad Graf instrument. It’s hardly surprising that the Steinway is capable of producing crystalline clarity on its high notes: what’s more impressive is the way that Kolesnikov was able to tame the rumbling lows so that they never turned to muddy incoherence, his right foot pumping furiously on the pedal. What he achieved was clarity without harshness, waves of sound that washed over you without you ever being at risk of drowning.

For all this clarity and excellence on a micro level, Kolesnikov has some way to go to bring out the best in every work at a macro level. For the core of the second half, he chose a selection of shorter Tchaikovsky pieces: each of these provided moments that were lovely to listen to, but I tended to reach the end of a piece wondering what was the point. This wasn’t helped by Kolesnikov’s preference for running pieces together, which was effective in establishing a linkage but robbed one of the chance to take stock – something that was particularly needed when choosing seldom heard repertoire (and which, for three of the works, were a departure from the programme originally advertised). For a programme so focused on calm, reflective music, it would have been good to have had more time to reflect.

The pillars of this concert were the three Brahms Intermezzi. The programme notes make clear that these are dear to Kolesnikov’s heart, a fact confirmed by the perfect legato and the perfect weighting that he brought to every phrase. For an encore, Kolesnikov repeated the Intermezzo no. 1 with which he had opened the concert, bringing us symmetry showing us how the same piece can be coloured differently to fill a different place in the evening, to soothe us into a winter goodnight.