Pavel Kolesnikov, the pianist making ‘a palace of sound built by your own imagination’

The Russian star brings his take on Bach’s Goldberg Variations to the Proms, having recently torn the piece apart with choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. He explains his new, ‘tree-like’ twist

“Like climbing an infinite stairway, one step at a time.” That is how Pavel Kolesnikov describes working on JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations, one of the outstanding releases of last year. On Friday 10 September, he will perform them at the penultimate night of the Proms.

“I’ve never had the chance to dedicate so much quality time to a piece before,” he says when we meet in a tiny cafe in central London. The city has been home since the Siberia-born Kolesnikov, now in his early 30s, came to study at the Royal College of Music. He had grown up listening to recordings of the Goldbergs by Glenn Gould and Rosalyn Tureck, but had never considered performing them himself – “I did not feel I had anything to add”.

Then, out of the blue, in autumn 2018, he was contacted by the Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker: would he be interested in collaborating on a dance piece? It felt like serendipity. “For several years, I’d been thinking that I’d be interested in working with a dancer.” He was already a fully paid-up admirer of De Keersmaeker’s works based on Bach, especially her version of the Brandenburg Concertos (“I’ve seen that piece five or six times: it’s incredible”). So, in autumn 2018, they began an intense period of work together on the Goldbergs.

It was a very different proposition to the Brandenburgs, which involved an ensemble 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, mostly talking about what I’d discovered, maybe playing with ideas. Once you start working on a piece like that, it’s like archaeology.”

He made De Keersmaeker a working recording of the whole work, then one of just the basslines. She had most of the choreography ready – and then Covid struck. “When we were allowed to travel again, I took the first train I could to Brussels … out of complete lockdown, I went into rehearsals for 14 hours a day, non-stop, for two weeks. And then we did the premiere.”

Amid this, he made his glorious, mischievously eloquent recording for the label Hyperion. Yet this isn’t a soundtrack to the dance work – far from it. “Some solutions are different. I was going for a sound that is completely weightless. When Anne Teresa heard it, she told me she could not dance with it, and I understand why – it doesn’t have a physical aspect at all, it’s happening in your mind. It’s 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 arrive at ideas that are not there when I perform it with Anne Teresa. It’s developing in different directions, growing like a tree, and I like this feeling very much.”

Pavel Kolesnikov Teresa De Keersmaeker
Pavel Kolesnikov, performing with choreographer Teresa De Keersmaeker. Photograph: Anne Van Aerschot

The weightlessness of sound that Kolesnikov was aiming for – and achieves so convincingly – on the recording informed his choice of piano: a modern Yamaha, but one strung so as to have a distinctively soft, woody sound. It is almost reminiscent of an instrument from the 19th century, or even earlier.

He wasn’t aiming for “authenticity”, though; he is interested in hearing other pianists on 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 pieces come across as something new, something unexpected and fresh. As soon as you start working with historical instruments, you are jeopardising this aspect. It is very difficult to get away from that; some performers manage it magically, but I don’t see myself doing that.”

It is also hard to get away from the mythology that has built up around the Goldbergs, specifically the story recorded by Johann Nikolaus Forkel, Bach’s first biographer, which claims that the Variations were written for one of Bach’s pupils (who gave the works their title) to play for his insomniac employer, a Russian count, in the small hours. Many think Forkel was making things up; for Kolesnikov, that doesn’t necessarily matter.

“When we approach a piece like this, it’s unfair to strip it of all those meanings it has acquired over time,” he says. “Some are controversial, some conflict, but everything that happens to the piece belongs to its story. This lends it great flexibility. I’ve never felt uncomfortable playing it anywhere – at home for close friends, in an empty Wigmore Hall, or in the Châtelet in Paris with Anne Teresa, for maybe 1,500 people.”

Kolesnikov at the Proms on 11 August playing Rachmaninov with the Aurora Orchestra
Kolesnikov at the Proms on 11 August playing Rachmaninov with the Aurora Orchestra Photograph: Chris Christodoulou

And now, on a flying visit to London in the middle of a Brussels run of the dance piece (he hopes it will come to co-producer Sadler’s Wells next year), he will be playing it at the Royal Albert Hall, to a potential audience of three times that. An archive-hunting friend has suggested to him that it might be the first time in the festival’s history that a solo pianist has had a prime-time, early evening Prom all to themselves. Is he daunted? “Maybe I will be intimidated on the day, but at this point I’m really looking forward to it. I think the piece has the power of organising that space. Bach’s music has endless levels of richness and there’s always something that fits.”

• Pavel Kolesnikov plays the Goldberg Variations at the Proms on 10 September The concert is live on BBC Radio 3 and then on BBC Sounds until October.


Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Rosas review – life is suite in mysterious Bach dances
Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s choreography for the composer’s music, played by cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, is austere and enigmatic

Lyndsey Winship

25, Apr, 2019 @11:40 AM

Article image
Pavel Kolesnikov review – an outstanding pianist in every degree
The young Russian’s recital was breathtaking in its finesse and emotion – from eerie Bartók to volatile Beethoven

Tim Ashley

05, Jan, 2020 @11:19 AM

Article image
Composer-pianist Max Richter: ‘Creativity is activism’
The German-British composer explains why his new album, Exiles, addresses the refugee crisis – and is played by an orchestra who break all the rules

Kat Lister

02, Aug, 2021 @8:00 AM

Article image
TV tonight: Robson Green and Tom Brittney return to investigate more village crimes
Grantchester’s sixth season opener sees Will and Geordie suspecting a poisoning at a holiday camp. Plus, Moses Sumney performs at the Proms. Here’s what to watch this evening

Ammar Kalia, Graeme Virtue, Phil Harrison and Paul Howlett

03, Sep, 2021 @5:20 AM

Article image
‘Rewrite Rule, Britannia!’ What would you do with the Last Night of the Proms?
Its patriotic songs ignited a culture war last year. Is it time to rethink the Proms’ closing concert? A panel of leading musical figures suggest some alternative ways of approaching the contentious evening

12, Sep, 2021 @11:23 AM

Article image
Bach: Ich Habe Genug review | Erica Jeal's classical album of the week
Cantatas 82, 32 and 106 trace a vivid path from despair to hope in this uplifting recording with heart-stopping moments

Erica Jeal

14, Oct, 2021 @1:44 PM

Article image
Michael Smiley’s teenage obsessions: ‘I heard the Beat and came back to Belfast a rude boy’
The comedian and actor on dancing with his mother to Ray Charles, the power of Seamus Heaney’s poetry and how Richard Pryor showed him his future

As told to Tom Seymour

19, Aug, 2021 @1:09 PM

Article image
TV tonight: the scandalous Anne Boleyn and her family go about their business
The second episode of the documentary drama picks up 17 years into Henry VIII’s reign. Plus: jazz at the BBC Proms. Here’s what to watch this evening

Ammar Kalia, Phil Harrison, Hannah Verdier, Ali Catterall and Simon Wardell

20, Aug, 2021 @5:20 AM

Article image
Aaron Eckhart’s teenage obsessions: ‘Pink Floyd saved my life’
The Hollywood star recalls his childhood in San Jose, Sydney and Walton-on-Thames, falling for Grease and Macbeth – and his enduring love for The Young Ones

As told to Rich Pelley

22, Jul, 2021 @12:00 PM

Article image
Cher’s films – ranked!
She has just turned 75 and there’s a new biopic in the works. What better time to look back at a film CV that’s full of memorable roles?

Guy Lodge

20, May, 2021 @3:38 PM