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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