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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV988
Pavel Kolesnikov (piano)
Recorded in St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London, 16-18 December 2019
HYPERION CDA68338 [79:30]

Gosh, this is good! I’ve been lucky enough to see Pavel Kolesnikov live a couple of times, but so far I’ve missed his Hyperion recordings. If this disc is anything to go by then I have a lot to look forward to in catching up.

This is by a country mile the finest Goldberg Variations I’ve heard, on any instrument, since Angela Hewitt’s (also on Hyperion: what’s their secret?!). And the first remarkable thing about it is that, before preparing for this recording, Kolesnikov had scarcely even played the Goldbergs before. Perhaps that’s its secret: the performance is so fresh, so insouciant (in places), and so full of life that it’s utterly refreshing.

You get a sense of where you are right from the opening aria, which begins the piece in the most winning way imaginable. Kolesnikov’s touch is gentle, light, even friendly, I’d say. More than anything, it’s relaxed: he throws in a gentle ornamentation or an occasional flash of colour as though to demonstrate that he is not in the slightest bit intimidated by the monument he is about to traverse. His music is bound into a rhythm, but he isn’t a slave to it, and his playing weaves an unostentatious line through the aria that is a forerunner of his approach to the work as a whole.

The whole thing is extremely well thought out. He doesn’t give the impression of conceiving the Goldbergs in a series of patterns or a set of components, beyond some things you’d expect, like a slight caesura at the halfway mark, before the French-sounding variation 16, or a longer pause after the Black Pearl, variation 25. In fact, the whole thing seems to be thought out in one big span, almost spontaneously, so it’s quite remarkable to see that he recorded it over three days.

Kolesnikov’s playing sparkles throughout. To give a few examples, there is a sense of restrained joy to the bounce of variation 1 or there is carolling ecstasy in variation 11. Variation 19 has a gentle smile to it, and I’ve never heard variation 9 shine with such transparent delicacy. Again and again you sense the rhythm of the dance, even in places you'd seldom expect it, like the refined grace of variation 7 or the gentle bustle of variation 8. Variation 24, on the other hand, embraces it by going all out for a glorious gigue before plunging us into the psychodrama of the Black Pearl.

That lightness of touch is always there, though, even in unexpected places. Even the more assertive variations, like variation 4, seem to have their tongue in their cheek, as though gently mimicking their pomposity, and Kolesnikov is perfectly capable of throwing in a surprise every so often. The inwardness of variation 12 seems to come from nowhere, and his spidery approach to variation 13 sounds like a forerunner of serialism. Variation 21 combines austerity with architectural grandeur, and I don’t remember ever hearing variation 15 sound so darkly expressionistic.

However, there is structural conception at play too, and there is a feeling, to my ears, that he builds towards the final variations as a culmination. The Black Pearl, for example, is taken slowly (clocking in at 7’47”), though not incongruously so, and the variations after it have a tripping delicacy that I didn’t sense to the same extent in the earlier moments. The Quodlibet is something very special, however. Kolesnikov introduces it with the utmost delicacy over a bewitching sustain pedal, as though at this final moment giving birth to a whole new work out of the remains of the old. The variation itself feels like the ebb and flow of a culminating wave, growing in strength from a pianissimo beginning before receding like a vision, and the subsequent aria da capo feels like putting the whole work gently to bed.

The sensitivity of Kolesnikov’s touch meets a sharp intelligence of approach and a determined refusal to follow convention for its own sake. Also, his ornamentations are a total delight throughout: they never sound self-conscious, but instead casual and relaxed; deeply considered but sounding as though touched out with remarkable ease. Structurally, he observes all the repeats, but he sounds so natural that, unlike in one recent recording, I stopped paying attention to them after a while and lost myself in the sound.

It’s beautifully presented, too, with a brief note from Kolesnikov himself, an excellent essay from Richard Wigmore, and artist biography.

In short, this disc is completely marvellous: a wonderful musician giving his fresh take on a timeless masterpiece, beautifully played and captured in excellent recorded sound. If you want a modern Goldberg Variations on a piano with digital sound, then there is no reason hesitate.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: Colin Clarke

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