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To say that Pavel Kolesnikov’s approach to the Goldbergs is unorthodox is putting it mildly. In his liner note, he makes clear the aesthetic challenge: ‘What is this piece,’ he asks, ‘massive but fragile, with its rigorous, almost ceremonial structure, with its kaleidoscopic flickering imagery, with its eccentric extremes and most perfectly refined polyphonic writing?’ Then he runs through possible ways of viewing it. A coded message, or an exercise in numerology? A glorious attempt to marry old and new, or a nocturnal, private, fanciful tale? A gallant gift, a cosmic dream? A journey from earth to heaven, or an educational exercise like Gradus ad Parnassum?

Yet such thoughts are only a beginning for him, because – as he makes clear in the interview on page 16 of this issue – he has never before performed or recorded Bach, having always found his music problematic. The unlocking of this problem for Kolesnikov arose from the fact that he had to play the Goldbergs as a backdrop to a dance sequence: he had to interrogate each piece with the requirements of a dancer as his guide, and each had to imply its own choreography.

With graceful ornamentation, the theme comes over like a little breath of wind. The first variation sounds eager and amused, the second has a cautious gravity, the third is hushed and busy. Kolesnikov’s touch is dry and clean, and when he resorts to pedalling it’s always to make a dramatic point. Each variation inhabits its own world, and the effect is revelatory: he can mimic the timbre of a harpsichord as readily as he can that of ceremonial brass. The plangency of Variation 16 is all the more effective for being muted, the plate-spinning trills of 28 seem to be delivered with a smile. Restraint is the key: the ‘Black Pearl’ variation is not milked for emotion, but takes its place as just one more delight in this riveting sequence.

MICHAEL CHURCH Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Piano International, 2021 - ©Rhinegold Publishing