In a rare visit to New York, Pavel Kolesnikov played two recitals in the intimate space of Park Avenue Armory’s Board of Officers Room. If the first one was dedicated to a single work – Bach’s monumental Goldberg Variations, rendered with a great variety of nuances and a few idiosyncrasies – the second was a collection of brief works bearing the title “Celestial Navigation”. The programme was meant to be an homage to Joseph Cornell, the American artist famous for his open-to-interpretation assemblage boxes, full of everyday objects, meticulously arranged in whimsical ways. The ephemeral astronomical experiences in his “Celestial Navigation” series are considered a metaphor for our need to escape from everyday life and seek higher understanding.

Pavel Kolesnikov
© Da Ping Luo

Building his own musical constellation, creating uncommon musical juxtapositions, between works both well-known and rarely played, Kolesnikov attempted to create a soundscape where the piano navigates between clearly defined havens, but the overall trip is full of mystery, governed by invisible forces and energies.

The first part of the recital was a veritable potpourri, mainly intertwining works by Chopin and Messiaen and underlining the Romantic – Lisztian, Chopinian – roots of Messiaen’s output. The pianist seemed to suggest that expressing emotions can bring one to the same end point, irrespective if they are anchored in 19th century melancholy or inspired by deep religious beliefs. He brought forth Messiaen’s very particular harmonic language, textures, and complex rhythms in the three pieces spanning the composer’s entire career. The perception of birdsongs and tolling bells was consistently palpable. The awareness of the latter, on top of what sounded like delicate dragonfly wings fluttering, was the main distinctive trait in the rendition of Darknesse Visible, Thomas Adès’ short piece based on a quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost. It was just one of the many meaningful echoes reverberating through the entire performance. Fleeting moments of exuberance in  three Chopin Nocturnes were subsumed by an overarching aura of pensiveness. Kolesnikov’s extensive use of both piano pedals occasionally resulted in muddled or muffled sounds. Nevertheless, each repetition of various thematic materials had its own unique individuality, while suggestions of a melody attempting to break away from a constraining accompaniment were treated with poetic simplicity. The mood transitions, reminiscent of Schubert's lieder, foreshadowed Kolesnikov's interpretation of the composer's music after the interval.

In Louis Couperin’s Pavanne, the evening’s introductory work, the pianist used the full expressive power of a Steinway grand piano, while still preserving or enhancing all the harpsichord-intended embroideries. The sense of meditative approach was clearly there, but so was one of aimless wandering. The other bookend of the Chopin – Messiaen dialogue over time was Une barque sur l’océan, the longest and the most technically demanding component of Ravel’s  suite Miroirs, envisioned in this context as a bridge between the two. The boat (represented by the theme) swayed on top of the vast expanse of the ocean with waves sweeping the entire keyboard. The pianist used abrupt changes in dynamics to suggest the capricious nature of the sea gods. The boat survives the storm (a dissonant climax) and returns to calm waters but, at least in this version, questions remain unanswered.

Schubert’s Impromptus, D.935, never slipping into sentimentality, were rich with distinctive individual details, such as the textural clarity in the Allegro moderato or the different colors brought to each of the variations in the B-flat major Impromptu. Nonetheless, the meandering roads from light charm to darkness seemed to lack the whiff of spontaneity and hesitation that mark the best Schubert interpretations.