Pavel Kolesnikov, piano: Works by Mozart, Schumann, and Scriabin, Playhouse, November 16, 2014.

One compliment that I must to give to 23 year old Russian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov is that is virtually impossible to pigeon hole him.  Certainly there are elements of Russian spirit and command in the playing of this winner of the 2012 Honens International Piano Competition, but there is also a delicacy of expression and an innate awareness of the inner narrative of a work that make his playing very natural and quintessentially his own.  There is strength in this playing but more intellectual than particularly physical.  To Pavel, the keyboard seems to be just an instrument by which to project the full inner complexity of his own mind and feelings. 

The famous Mozart Fantasy, K. 475 really was a fantasia, allowing considerable contrast in moods created, yet building strongly to its dramatic points.  The artistry here was in the way the pianist permitted different lines to play off each other, always guided by a very clean and imaginative right hand articulation.  Some contrasts seemingly just popped out of the texture, yet the artist’s cunning rubato and shading always kept the story line. 

The opening movement of the Schumann Fantasia in C was also true fantasy, unbridled, even obsessive passion moving so naturally forward – almost in an improvisatory way -- but then always falling back to a contemplative, vulnerable stasis, only to do this over and over again.  There was so much that was headlong but there was also so much that was yielding and tender, the latter often revealing the true story.  The beautiful right hand was busy searching, questioning and wandering, always making the tonal fabric both multi-dimensional and allowing moods to change from moment to moment. The following march was very angular and big boned, phrases tossed one way, then lurching the other, then cutting across each other.  Yes, I admit it: the suspension that the pianist achieved in some of this phrasing did remind me of Richter, though of course Pavel had his own particular brand of ingenuity.  I am usually partial to intimate and vulnerable readings of the great closing movement, but here we got something much richer in romantic feeling, often gentle and warm, with subtle colours, and almost a noble grandness. The very end of the movement, often taken to suggest removal and a withering away, flowed with consummate determination, life coursing through the veins in a way that perhaps only Russians know.  Not for all tastes perhaps, but a beautifully rich experience.   

There was less to say about Schumann’s Nachtstuke, partially because there is less to say in these four pieces in the first place.  Many of these miniatures explore march treads, and I think their pace was judged quite well.  Some of the playing might have been slightly on the large side but the compensation was that the pianist often managed to achieve quite a natural flow, also finding an interesting reflective tone in the second piece.

Alexander Scriabin’s Vers la Flamme introduced us to music of dark inexorability, the bottom of the piano superbly coming to life.  The pianist built this passionate expression with exacting control, suspending us in continuing waves of romantic feeling and weight.  The brief Sonata No. 4 gave us an even better feeling of what the pianist can do, achieving a pristine balance within Scriabin’s often complex textures at no matter what speed or weight.  This was remarkably transparent playing, often achieving a special delicacy, as well as being warm and powerful.

I have infrequently seen such a combination of individuality, structural awareness and pianistic control in an artist of this age.  There is no trace of show: just the pianist and the music. It would be natural to ask how he might do Rachmaninoff, but I would be at least as interested in seeing him do many other composers from Beethoven to Debussy.  

Naturally, this concert did have an encore but it seemed to be strangely executed.  After Pavel initially left the stage, theater staff suddenly appeared, moving the piano to the far right and then bringing another mini-grand on stage and putting it where concert grand used to be.  I thought: I’ve never seen this before: a pianist who requires a different piano for his encores!  But, no, this was actually a very tender and affecting moment.  Pavel came back on stage and gave a beautiful reading of a Chopin nocturne on the mini-grand, at the end of which he was joined by Artistic Director of the Vancouver Recital Society, Leila Getz, and other officials.  As a charitable act, the Society had collaborated with the Make-A-Wish Foundation to help a young man with a difficult past have the piano he wanted so much.  The young man came up on the stage, shook hands with Pavel and the others, said a few words, and everything ended very happily.


© Geoffrey Newman 2014