Marcel Proust

In a programme conceived as a hommage to the French writer Marcel Proust in this the centenary year of his death, pianist Pavel Kolesnikov took us on a journey of departures and returns, of nostalgia and loss, rediscovery and reflection, exploring conceptions of musical time and the notion of involuntary memory, which pervades Proust’s great work, most famously expressed through the famous “episode of the madeleine”, which appears in the first volume of A la recherche du temps perdu.

Completists might have baulked at the splitting of the Schubert G major Sonata (D 894), but as the programme notes made clear, it was customary in 19th century salon concerts to intersperse movements of sonatas or other multi-movement works with shorter pieces. And to hear the remainder of the sonata at the close of the programme brought a pleasing symmetry, a recollection of what had gone before, and sense of an ending, as it were.

In this strikingly imaginative and thoughtful programme, Kolesnikov revealed how music as well as madeleines can be a powerful trigger for the involuntary memory, that a few notes or a phrase can provoke memories from long ago. Opening his concert by quoting the first lines from the first volume of Proust’s novel –

For a long time I would go to bed early. Sometimes, the candle barely out, my eyes closed so quickly that I did not have time to tell myself: “I’m falling asleep.” And half an
hour later the thought that it was time to look for sleep would awaken me….

– Kolesnikov then launched into the serene first movement of Schubert’s ‘Fantasy’ Sonata, D894, a mesmerizingly spacious account so carefully, subtly nuanced that as each new subject was introduced it took on a special character of its own, as if one was opening a little secret door into another room, another world where we glimpsed, momentarily, people dancing a gentle waltz, unaware they were being observed, or overheard the delicate tinkling sounds of a music box…..Kolesnikov flexes tempos, applies stringendo, pulls back again, allowing the music to ebb and flow, creating an extraordinary sense of time suspended, yet never once sounding contrived nor insincere; this was coupled with a powerful intimacy, as if we had exchanged the Wigmore Hall for an elegant Parisian salon. For a composer for whom pauses and silences are so meaningful, this for me was some of the most sensitive Schubert playing I have ever encountered.

Requesting no applause throughout the first half of the concert, the Schubert seamlessly segued from G major into G minor, in an Unmeasured Prelude by Louis Couperin, a composer very much in vogue in French salon culture of Proust’s day. In this piece, and another by Couperin later in programme, Kolesnikov captured the composer’s grace and sparkle, but also sought out darker currents and curious, scrunchy dissonances. In this Kolesnikov made this music unexpectedly modern; yet the inclusion of Couperin was a recollection of an earlier era too.

The only direct link to Proust in the programme were pieces by Reynaldo Hahn, whom the writer met at the studio of painter Madeleine Lemaire in May 1894. They began a romantic relationship which developed into lasting, intimate friendship. In selections from Le rossignol éperdu, a suite of miniatures appropriately subtitled ‘poèmes pour piano’, again Kolesnikov found spaciousness, subtle colourations, delicate nuances. A witty, wistful little Schubert dance interposed, momentarily, and then drifted away, only to return a few moments later, skittishly emerging from one of Hahn’s unashamedly nostalgic waltzes.

Then there was Fauré, an unsettling Nocturne replete with unexpected dissonances and daring chromaticism, before another dance in three-time, a Sarabande by Louis Couperin.

The first half passed as if in a dream, or that not quite asleep state that Proust describes in the opening of his novel. I glanced at my watch. Where had the time gone?

The second half opened with Cesar Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, as monumental and striking as a newly-hewn chunk of Portland stone, magnificently controlled, yet improvisatory, particularly in the Chorale, with deliciously sonorous pedalling to evoke the organ, the composer’s own instrument. A little interlude with more Hahn, and then the return and completion of the Schubert sonata, its remaining three movements offering a remembrance not only of the opening movement, but also those cheeky little excerpts from the Atzenbrugger Tanz of the first half, which were revisited in the jaunty Menuetto of the third movement.

For an encore Kolesnikov gave us Debussy, La Cathédrale engloutie, from the first book of Preludes, its resonant organ line recalling the Franck, as it rose from the rolling waves.

This was my first visit to the Wigmore since 29 February 2020, when I heard the pianist Jonathan Biss, not realising at the time that within a month the venue would be shuttered and silent. I felt the loss of live music very keenly, to the extent that in the early weeks of the first UK lockdown, I could not even listen to classical music on disc or on the radio. Instead I listened to my son’s hip hop and reggae playlists, enjoying the contrast afforded by completely different musical genres. 

Thus, it was an incredibly special moment to walk through the doors and into the red-carpeted vestibule of the Wigmore for Pavel Kolesnikov’s concert – and what a magnificent concert to mark my personal return to concert-going. And in another nice piece of symmetry, I met the friend with whom I had attended the Biss Beethoven concert back in February 2020. It felt so good to be back!

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John Gilhooly, Director of London’s prestigious Wigmore Hall, has announced a new series of lunchtime concerts at the Hall, starting on 1 June. This is, sadly, not a return to “normal” for classical music – far from it – but it does signal a tiny glimmer of hope for an industry decimated by the global response to the coronavirus.

In collaboration with BBC Radio 3, part of their Culture in Quarantine season, lunchtime concerts will be broadcast from Wigmore Hall, featuring artists who can get to the hall easily, and without, where possible, the need to use public transport. These include pianists Imogen Cooper, Benjamin Grosvenor, Angela Hewitt, Stephen Hough, Mitsuko Uchida and Paul Lewis, singers Lucy Crowe, Iestyn Davies, Mark Padmore and Roderick Williams, violinist Alina Ibragimova and clarinettist Michael Collins. These esteemed artists will perform to an empty hall, with a maximum of two performers on stage and BBC broadcasting and hall staff observing strict health and safety guidelines in order to produce the programmes. A series of 20 concerts will be broadcast on weekday lunchtimes on Radio 3 and livestreamed via the Wigmore Hall’s website and YouTube channel.

John Gilhooly writes:

We are very grateful to our wonderful colleagues at BBC Radio 3 for collaborating with us on this project, as well as the private donor whose magnificent lead gift has made the series possible, helping us to match the BBC’s contribution. Through these concerts we will bring great live music from our acclaimed acoustic to every corner of the nation and overseas.

I hope this project will also provide a glimmer of light for the entire industry, administrators and musicians alike. Arts and culture contribute £8.5 billion to the UK economy, and this complex industry will need to be rebuilt with public and government support, in due course. It is still unclear exactly when we will be able to open our doors to the public again, and although we remain cautiously optimistic about the future, we can only react to events as they unfold.

The intention is to present a larger number of artists in similar future broadcasts, possibly some who are included in the Wigmore’s autumn 2020 programme.

This will bring a degree of cheer to those of us who love the Wigmore and miss live concerts in the “sacred shoebox”: it will undoubtedly be a pleasure to hear the Wigmore Steinway being played once more, and to have the sounds and colours of music flood the fine acoustic. This will be a different kind of live music, a little closer to the “real thing”, perhaps, than the livestreams and  “living room recitals” we’ve grown used to seeing online as musicians strive to keep the music going while also validating their identity during these uncertain times, and beyond.

Nothing can replace the excitement, drama and atmosphere of live music. As pianist Imogen Cooper remarked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:

The audience will be completely invisible – hundreds of thousands of people out there cooking their lunch…..We all need the immediacy and the danger and raw emotion of live music at the moment. It’s very cathartic.

Cathartic indeed. Yet I find I cannot listen to and enjoy much classical music at the moment as it reminds me all too painfully of the great hole coronavirus and government responses to it have ripped in our cultural life, and the grave difficulties faced by friends and colleagues in the profession. But of course I will tune in to these concerts (most probably on Radio 3 rather than via the livestream – I don’t particularly want to see my beloved Wigmore Hall devoid of the audience which helps to create its special ambiance).

For those of us who love live music, it is not just the “immediacy and the danger and raw emotion” that we miss. It is also the sense of a shared experience, the communication of emotions, and the celebration of creativity. Sure, one can appreciate those things in a radio broadcast or livestream, but you cannot truly replicate the live concert experience, not in its entirety.

It will be a curious experience for the performers too, playing to an empty space. For most, the sea of faces and the applause on walking across the stage, that special hush of expectation as the house lights dim, the feeling of collective listening and concentration, is as much a part of the live performance as the music itself. Imagination may go some way to create atmosphere in the mind of the performer (and this kind of ‘mental performance’ is a key part of the performer’s skillset in preparing for concerts) but I imagine playing to an empty hall, with only a few microphones and a handful of staff to be the “ears” for the performance, will feel quite strange. Yet, the artists giving these lunchtime concerts are respected, highly skilled professionals and I do not doubt that they will give their all to bring the music to us. British pianist Stephen Hough opens the series (programme TBC).

Further details of Wigmore Hall lunchtime concerts