“LLike climbing an infinite ladder, one step at a time. “This is how Pavel Kolesnikov describes working on JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations, one of last year’s featured releases. On Friday, September 10, he will perform them on the penultimate night of the Proms.
“I’ve never had the opportunity to spend so much quality time on a piece before,” he says when we meet in a small cafe in central London. The city has been his home since Siberian-born Kolesnikov, now in his 30s, came to study at the Royal College of Music. He had grown up listening to Glenn Gould and Rosalyn Tureck recordings of the Goldbergs, but had never considered performing them himself: “I didn’t feel like I had anything to add.”
Then, out of nowhere, in autumn 2018, he was contacted by Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker: would you be interested in collaborating on a dance piece? It felt like a fluke. “For several years, I had been thinking that I would be interested in working with a dancer.” He was already a fully paid admirer of De Keersmaeker’s works based on Bach, especially his version of the Brandenburg Concertos (“I’ve seen that piece five or six times: it’s amazing”). So, in the fall of 2018, they began an intense period of working together at the Goldbergs.
It was a very different proposal from that of the Brandenburgs, which involved a group of musicians and dancers; this would be just Kolesnikov and De Keersmaeker on stage together for 85 minutes. First, he worked on his own analysis of the music, variation by variation. “Every few weeks, we would meet in Brussels and have an all-day session, mainly talking about what I had discovered, maybe playing with ideas. Once you start working on a piece like that, it’s like archeology. “
He made De Keersmaeker a working recording of all the work, then just one of the bass lines. He had most of the choreography ready, and then Covid hit. “When we were allowed to travel again, I took the first train I could to Brussels… coming out of the total blockade, I entered rehearsals for 14 hours a day, non-stop, for two weeks. And then we did the premiere. “
In the midst of this, he made his gloriously and maliciously eloquent recording for the Hyperion label. However, this is not a soundtrack for dance work, far from it. “Some solutions are different. I was looking for a completely weightless sound. When Anne Teresa heard it, she told me that she couldn’t dance with it, and I understand why, it doesn’t look physical at all, it’s happening in your mind. It is a palace of sound that is being built by your own imagination, ”he says.
“And now, when I’m performing the piece on my own, it grows independently and I come up with ideas that aren’t there when I’m performing it with Anne Teresa. It is developing in different directions, growing like a tree, and I really like this feeling. “
The weightlessness of the sound that Kolesnikov aspired to, and achieves so convincingly, on recording informed his choice of piano: a modern Yamaha, but strung to have a distinctively smooth woody sound. It is almost reminiscent of an instrument from the 19th century, or even earlier.
However, it was not aimed at “authenticity”; He is interested in listening to other pianists with historical instruments, but has never been tempted to work with them himself. “For me, one of the ultimate goals of a performance is to make the pieces look like something new, something unexpected and fresh. As soon as you start working with historical instruments, you are compromising this aspect. It is very difficult to get away from that; some artists magically do it, but I don’t see myself doing that. “
It’s also hard to get away from the mythology that has been built around the Goldbergs, specifically the history recorded by Johann Nikolaus. Forkel, Bach’s first biographer, who claims that the Variations were written for one of Bach’s pupils (who gave the works their title) to perform for his insomniac employer, a Russian earl, in the early morning. Many think that Forkel was making things up; for Kolesnikov, that doesn’t necessarily matter.
“When we approach a piece like this, it is unfair to strip it of all those meanings that it has acquired over time,” he says. “Some are controversial, some conflictive, but everything that happens to the piece belongs to its history. This gives it great flexibility. I have never felt uncomfortable performing it anywhere: at home for close friends, in an empty Wigmore Hall or at the Châtelet in Paris with Anne Teresa, for about 1,500 people ”.
And now, on a quick visit to London in the middle of a Dance piece race in Brussels (He expects it to hit co-producer Sadler’s Wells next year), will play it at the Royal Albert Hall, before a potential audience three times as large. A friend from the archive search has suggested to him that it might be the first time in the festival’s history that a solo pianist has had an early night primetime prom ball all to themselves. Are you intimidated? “I may be intimidated that day, but right now I’m looking forward to it. I think the piece has the power to organize that space. Bach’s music has infinite levels of richness and there is always something that fits. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism