Goldberg Variations, BWV988
Pavel Kolesnikov (piano)
Recorded 16-18 December 2019 in St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: January 2021
CD No: HYPERION CDA68338
Duration: 79 minutes
As the young Siberian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov writes in the booklet, he came to the mighty Goldberg Variations in the autumn of 2018 through a meeting with the Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, who commissioned him to play the work for a new solo dance piece, which previewed last summer in Belgium and Austria in Covid-limited performances; there is a short trailer of their collaboration on YouTube.
For a work that many pianists size up over a long period, Kolesnikov’s 2019 studio recording might seem precipitate, and his approach makes you wonder how far he absorbed and accommodated De Keersmaeker’s abstract, expressionist drama. The results, though, speak for themselves with charm, spontaneity and perception. His performance is the antithesis of the grand self-importance of, say, Karl Richter’s reading, and the way Kolesnikov flirts with Angela Hewitt’s more overt mastery of Bach’s balletic athleticism is very beguiling, as is his facility for suggesting much with minimum means.
Generally Kolesnikov’s speeds are on the swift side, and he is generous with decorative embellishments in the repeats. Just occasionally I found his alternation of fussy staccato and fluid legato a bit predictable, but set against that is a subtle colour control of the Yamaha piano that holds the door open on the work’s harpsichord origin. His slight thickening of sound in the canons (every third variation) anchors Bach’s formal process and would have no doubt worked well in the choreography, and Kolesnikov really takes off in the more virtuosic variations – listen to No.20 for the skill with which he gives the illusion of music and rhythm almost going off the rails; it is very exciting.
As for the three minor-key Variations, he surrenders to eloquent rubato and extremely imaginative, conversational voice-leading, while delivering in the so-called ‘Black Pearl’ Variation (25) a chromatic veil of tears that quietly grabs you with its intensity. He leaves you in no doubt that this is the climax of the work, which leads into an intelligently shaped close. Variation 29 is a cross between cadenza and epic Baroque fantasia, and in an unashamedly romantic gesture he lets the following Quodlibet emerge out of a wash of pedal. It’s an echo of Kolesnikov’s skills in changing focus and implying foreground and background, which makes the Aria da capo an extended process of retreat and disintegration – and very satisfying it is.