Review: Pavel Kolesnikov continues winning ways a decade after earning Honens title

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Pianist excels at personal, spiritual interpretations that elevate the music from the composer’s page

While all the winners of the Honens International Piano Competition have been worthy pianists, some stick in the public imagination more than others. One of these is Pavel Kolesnikov, the laureate of the 2012 competition, whose sensitive accompanying, imaginative solo playing, and brilliant final concerto performance galvanized the judges and earned him the top prize.

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In the succeeding years, Kolesnikov has lived up to the promise of his competition success. He has had an unbroken stream of well-received recitals, made fine CD recordings, and has appeared with many of the world’s major orchestras. Not having appeared in Calgary since 2016, his return to the city in a solo recital co-sponsored by The University of Calgary’s School of Creative and Performing Arts and the Honens International Piano Competition drew a sold-out audience at the University of Calgary’s Rozsa Centre.

As a pianist in a crowded professional world, Kolesnikov has positioned himself as an artist with a distinctive, individual personality. While he regularly plays the standard concerto repertoire, he is better known for his solo recitals, characterized by gentleness and refinement, for his sensitivity to the beauty of piano sound, and his personal, highly individual interpretations of familiar repertoire.

His recital Tuesday evening ventured into no new ground in terms of repertoire. What was offered was the most performed of Schubert’s piano sonatas, as well as a series of short, familiar works by Chopin, works that many people in the audience themselves can play — if by playing one means to simply get down the notes.

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For such a program to succeed as a solo concert, there needs to be something extra in the performance. It was here that Kolesnikov demonstrated his special talents and skills. All the works were performed with the most sumptuous beauty of tone, the softest of playing, dancing fingerwork, and big, bold textures when the music needed them.

Kolesnikov has a wide palate of sound that he can draw from a piano, all delivered with the greatest possible ease and physical co-ordination. It takes a tremendous amount of preparation to perform this music so that its execution is completely fluent and effortless. Kolesnikov spared nothing in careful preparation. The focus of the playing was entirely on how the music speaks, not its surface physicality.

As with many pianists, the music of Chopin lies close to Kolesnikov’s musical heart. Fundamentally a lyricist, Kolesnikov has a special feel and personal association with Chopin’s music, especially with the music of smaller pieces that need distinctive, individual characterization. Framing the three groups devoted to mazurkas, nocturnes, and waltzes, were two pieces that inhabit Chopin’s mystical, poetic world in a special way: the single Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 45, and the Mazurka in A minor, Op. 17, No. 4.

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Kolesnikov’s approach to musical interpretation harkens back to an older mode of Chopin performance from before the Second World War, one in which the artist’s personality was foregrounded, and in which liberties in rhythm and characterization were taken as a sign of individuality and personal inspiration. By today’s standards, such an approach can occasionally appear wilful and over-personal

Today, Chopin tends to be played in a drier, more objective way, as was heard at Jan Lisiecki’s recent recital. By contrast, Kolesnikov offered far more personal, distinctive accounts of Chopin’s music, interpretations of greater originality perhaps, but also requiring a listener familiar with the music to adjust to new and different ideas of how the music might go.

The contrast between the two pianists was easily seen, for example, in the Raindrop Prelude, performed twice by Lisiecki and also serving as Kolesnikov’s encore. In Kolesnikov’s hands, the prelude is conceived as substantially more dramatic and containing a much wider emotional scope. Yet, its inherent lyric underpinning was in no way lost, the return of the main theme and the ending taking on an added level of poignancy because of the drama of the middle section. The two artists view Chopin’s music quite differently and the performances were sharply contrasted.

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For myself, I was especially drawn to the performance of the three nocturnes, all of which I play myself (to my own amazement, of course). The final nocturne, the Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48, No. 1, is among Chopin’s greatest works. I have never heard it played so movingly or so beautifully; the underlying tragic emotion was completely realized. The concert would have been worth attending if only for just this one item. The same might be said about the framing prelude and mazurka, pieces set off in the concert as “special,” and which received indelible performances of the deepest concentration and emotional richness, as if entering a world of cosmic “play.”

As moving as these performances were, however, it was in the Schubert Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960, that Kolesnikov excelled himself. This is the most spiritual of the last three sonatas by Schubert, its mixture of lyricism, pathos, and (in places) charm perfectly suited to Kolesnikov’s approach to making music. This was a performance that could hardly be bettered. (My CD collection includes about 20 performances of this work by the world’s greatest pianists.)

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Among the many excellences in this performance, one might cite the rapt intensity of the slow movement, the playfulness and fancy of the scherzo, and the characterization of the finale, perhaps the capstone to the concert in every sense. The majestic opening movement, one of the longest in the standard repertory, was presented with a mixture of lyricism and drama, the underlying structure always clear and well-paced. Kolesnikov’s personality as a performer was less immediately foregrounded here, and one had the sense of Schubert speaking directly to the audience, the pianist merely the perfect transmitter of the music’s essence.

Taken together, this was a memorable, vivid recital, executed with impressive pianistic fluency and grace. It was an opportunity to savour the expansive richness of Kolesnikov’s musical imagination — an imagination that drew the audience into a magical place where, perchance, one might dream.

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