Pavel Kolesnikov plays Bach’s Goldberg Variations

J.S. Bach
Aria with Thirty Variations, BWV988 (Goldberg)

Pavel Kolesnikov (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 10 September, 2021
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This season’s penultimate Prom was not the sometime-traditional Choral Symphony but another German musical Everest, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, played by the young Siberian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov, given the accolade of a Proms solo piano recital. As many musicians have demonstrated, Bach’s music defers to the spirit of dance. Kolesnikov came to the Goldbergs through the real thing, as a vehicle for the Belgian contemporary dancer and choreographer Anne Theresa De Keersmaeker. The project was sabotaged by the pandemic, but Kolesenikov put his work into a CD release last year. There are extracts on YouTube of the dance version, and one can only speculate on the dancer’s input on Kolesnikov’s way into the work.

For a start, his performance was overtly romantic, and he delivered Bach’s elaborate celebration of counterpoint to the concert grand with an equally elaborate scheme of voice-leading, some extreme contrasts of dynamics, cleverly varied weight and colour, some big allargandos to the more dramatic variations, elastic rubatos, and, in the repeats, Bach’s already detailed decorations extended into generous flourishes. Several times I got the impression that Kolesnikov made explicit what the harpsichord can only imply, and while Kolesnikov’s arsenal of pianistic effects was impressive, his deployment of them became predictable and just a bit mannered. His use of the pedal was for the most part tactful, although, as on his CD, Kolesnikov still had the final ‘Quodlibet’ Variation emerging out of a decidedly non-period pedal haze, and on the matter of style Kolesnikov’s decorations had a distinctly Gallic flavour. His structuring of the work’s 90-minute span, as with other performers, was built round the strict canons that Bach places as every third variation and the three minor-key variations, which Kolesnikov entered as though they were inner sanctums. His fade-out towards the end of the repeat of the Aria was rather sentimental but may have had more impact in the dance version. In the end, though, Kolesnikov’s irresistible spontaneity, imagination and obvious love of a work that never stops giving won the day.

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