What is it about the Goldberg Variations which gives them such an enduring appeal? Two new recordings have been released in as many months, by two leading pianists of the 21st-century, yet each quite different in their approach. Maybe it is because Bach gives few performance directions, a lack of specificity which allows performers the freedom to make personal choices about the interpretative possibilities of this music. This is certainly true of these two new recordings.

Lang Lang’s Goldbergs (DG), released in September as a double album of studio and live recordings, is bright in sound and lavish in presentation. Some of the tempi are questionable, with elastic rubato stretched just a little too far, presumably intended to convey meaning or deep emotion, and the faster variations are rather showily bombastic. Listening at home, it feels like an extrovert and spirited concert performance, occasionally just too declamatory (though one can of course turn the volume down a notch or two!), but I have to admit that overall I enjoyed Lang Lang’s Goldbergs. There’s a freshness in his approach and he manages a singing tone with a bright, colourful piano sound, and I take issue with those who have suggested that he should not touch this music, which enjoys such an elevated status in the canon of keyboard music. In my view, the music is there to be played, by anyone who chooses to play it, and Lang Lang makes a good case for being considered a serious musician, rather than a flamboyant showman (in fact, he is both) with his recordings of the Goldbergs.

At the other end of the spectrum, musically and presentationally, is the young Russian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov, whose concert performances and recordings are imbued with a special sensitivity and emotional intelligence. Modest in mannerisms and presence, Kolesnikov could not be further from Lang Lang.  Rightly described as a “poet” of the piano, he can nuance his touch and dynamics in such a way that the slightest shift in sonority speaks volumes in terms of mood and narrative.

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With these qualities to his playing, it is no surprise that Kolesnikov’s version of the Goldbergs is rich in intimacy, reminding us that this music was, it is said, composed as a distraction for the insomniac Baron (later Count) Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk, Russian ambassador at the Dresden electoral court. The famous opening Aria barely announces itself, gently insinuating its simple, elegant melody into the ear and the consciousness. In Kolesnikov’s hands it’s a miniature study in elegance and other-worldly serenity. A calmness flows through the music, setting the tone for the entire work. Even in the up tempo or more lively variations, where there is palpable drama and robustness, Kolesnikov still retains an underlying sense of measured thoughtfulness.

But for me it is his touch which really captivates and delights: filigree ornaments and trills, passage work in which his quicksilver fingers appear to float across the keys, yet without losing definition. His textures flicker in and out of focus – now crispy defined, now delicately veiled and muted, yet throughout there is clarity of articulation, structure and musical vision.

And there is one particular moment which really stops you in your tracks – and may have Bach purists clutching at their pearls. Did he really do that? Variation 30 segues from the one before it in a bloom of sound, the sustaining pedal creating an unexpected and intriguing extra sonic layer before fading away to allow the Aria to return like a memory of times past.

This recording is the result of Kolesnikov’s collaboration with dancer and choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, and the spirit of the dance, which infuses so much of Bach’s music, is never far away in the delightful playfulness of Kolesnikov’s approach to Bach’s rhythms and counterpoint. This is an exquisitely tasteful and original account, recorded on a modern Yamaha grand piano on which Kolesnikov manages to recreate the softly-spoken sonorities of a clavichord or fortepiano (in preparing for the recording Kolesnikov worked on a number of different instruments “switching between them, in order to loosen up a little, to shake up my perception of sound of piano“.

What these two recordings prove – and the many, many others which exist – is that the Goldberg Variations is music without consensus: there are clichés about how Bach’s music should be played – from the period instrument zealots to the iconoclasts – and traditional views about how it should be played on the modern piano, but in fact there is no “right way”, nor who should play it, and the Goldberg Variations remain extraordinarily fertile terrain for those who choose to walk there.


Photo credit: Eva Vermandel

“today I finished the Fantasy and the sky is beautiful…..”

Fryderyk Chopin, 1841

The sky was indeed beautiful on perhaps the last day of summer, August Bank Holiday Monday, when I and my concert companion escaped the city heat and embraced the cool elegance of Cadogan Hall for an hour of poetry in music.

Russian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov is still in his twenties, yet he plays with all the assurance, poise and musical sensibility of an artist twice his age. His performance of piano music by Fryderyk Chopin was one to savour, to revisit (thanks to the wonders of the Radio Three iPlayer) and to hold in the memory for a long time to come. It is rare to be so transported, to lose time, suspended in sound, such was the effect of Pavel Kolesnikov’s playing.

A pianist from another era, Phyllis Sellick, declared that a concert featuring only one composer was “a list”. But how can one say that of the music of Fryderyk Chopin, so rich and subtle, so varied yet accessible that each performer, professional or amateur, can find their own personal way into it? Kolesnikov created a programme of pieces which “cast a different light” on Chopin, revealing not only his deeply Romantic mindset but also “an extremely refined, clear, clean style” (PK), perfectly complemented by Kolesnikov’s cultivated playing.

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Pavel Kolesnikov (photo: Eva Vermandel)

Some purists may balk at his elastic tempi, pushing rubato perhaps a little too far for some tastes (though not ours). This slackening of tempo, stretching of time, was felt most palpably in the repeats in the Waltzes, proof that no repetition is the same in the hands of a pianist. There were decorations too, sprinklings of improvisation, graceful musical seasonings, though always subtle and delicate as a breath. As a great admirer of Bach, I am sure Chopin would have approved of these embellishments, especially when delivered with such sensitivity and intuition.

From the opening work, a Waltz scored in A flat major but constantly hovering in the minor key, played with a tender poignancy and a caressing touch, Pavel Kolesnikov created a bittersweet intimacy in each work he touched, even in the grander, more expansive measures of the Fantasy in F minor and Scherzo no. 4, whose skittish good-nature closed this exquisite hour of music.

As I said, it is rare to be so transported by sound, by pianist and composer so perfectly in sympathy; yet I have heard Kolesnikov before in Debussy and Schumann, and I have been moved to tears by the poetic refinement of his playing. When so many young players seem to subscribe to the louder-faster school of pianism it is refreshing to hear a pianist who does not rush, who knows how to create breathing space and dramatic suspensions in the music, and who appreciates the smallest details as well as the most sweeping narratives.

Afterwards we stepped out into the Chelsea sunshine, found a shady spot for a drink and a long conservation about music, concerts, art, writing, and had the privilege of meeting the pianist, who was dining at the same cafe, to offer our congratulations for his wonderful, transporting performance.


My review for Bachtrack here and my companion’s response to the concert here