Think you know Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, that most battle-ready of musical warhorses? Pavel Kolesnikov might make you think again. This young Siberian pianist, based in London, is one of the most exciting piano talents I’ve seen in the UK in recent years: his name on the Philharmonia's billing is what attracted me to this concert, so I confess I arrived with some positive bias in store; but even allowing for that, I found this one of the most original and enchanting performances of this concerto I’ve heard in years.

Pavel Kolesnikov, Rory Macdonald and the Philharmonia Orchestra
© Philharmonia Orchestra

How on earth can you make this concerto sound new? By dialling everything down and revealing the delicacy that lies behind the surface fireworks. Ably abetted by conductor Rory Macdonald, Kolesnikov put his stamp on the music right from the off, when the piano’s opening chords, accompanying that soaring introductory theme, rippled gently against the strings rather than stomping over them. Macdonald shaped the orchestral sound in a way that allowed it to work, so that there was never any sense of coarseness or ostentation. It’s unexpected, but quite lovely, and made the normally barnstorming opening sound much more lyrical than usual

Nor was that a one-off gimmick, but it set the tone for an opening movement that was more conversational and cooperative than you have any right to expect from this music. Throughout, Kolesnikov showed his piano to be collaborator rather than bully: he felt his way gently into the main section of the movement, and the Russian dance of the first theme felt delicate, almost sylph-like, and that’s hardly an adjective you tend to associate with this concerto! Even the cadenza was predominantly poetic rather than explosive, and that extended to the gossamer-light slow movement and the playful finale.

There was struggle, yes, particularly in the central development, and Kolesnikov did finally pull out the explosive stops in the torrent of double-octaves that launched the third movement’s final peroration; but the fireworks were so much more effective because they were so long awaited. Never did the piano never feel tub-thumping or macho-sounding: instead Kolesnikov stripped away all of the testosterone and revealed the concerto as a multi-faceted musical jewel that glitters all the more brightly because of its delicacy. Wonderful!

Pavel Kolesnikov and the Philharmonia Orchestra
© Philharmonia Orchestra

Macdonald and the orchestra met him with tone that matched the pianist beautifully, nowhere more so than in the dusky delicacy of the beginning and end of the slow movement. They then produced a showcase of colour for Sibelius’ King Christian II suite, most particularly the strings, who sounded sensational in the melting Nocturne and soft-focused Elegie. Lively winds led the sparky Musette, so successful a tune that it was refashioned into a drinking song for one of the composer’s favourite haunts, while the razor-sharp runs of the final Ballade sounded exhilaratingly on-the-money.

That served as a good counter-balance to the concert’s light-hearted opening, Sibelius’ Dance Intermezzo in which the composer does his best impression of Chabrier, using trumpets and castanets to evoke Spain, and I found myself really enjoying it, even though I knew I shouldn’t approve.

This is the first UK pandemic concert I’ve seen, involving a full symphony orchestra, where I haven’t felt the need to complain about the sound being too airy because of the social distancing, which is a triumph of recording engineering as much as playing. The film is classily directed, too, though I didn’t love the distracting lights on each music stand which changed colour as the musicians played. That’s a tiny detail in the overall scheme, though. Every other element of this concert was a triumph.


This performance was reviewed from the Philharmonia Orchestra's video stream

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