Interview: Pianist Pavel Kolesnikov talks perfume and music ahead of his Edinburgh concert with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra
This latest recording project, for instance, is a fascinating voyage of discovery; an uncovering of the unexpected. The music is by Baroque composer Louis Couperin, whose Piéces de Clavecin (keyboard works) were the cornerstone of the new French harpsichord style of the mid-to-late 17th century. But who would ever think of reinterpreting them for the piano?
Kolesnikov has, and the result is this charming and evocative Hyperion recording comprising keyboard delights from the seminal 1690 Bauyn Manuscript, ranging from the famously “unmeasured” preludes (a free form of semi-notated, semi-improvised music created by Couperin) to joyous dance forms typical of the period. Kolesnikov’s pianistic solutions are a compelling and convincing argument that early music need not be constrained by historical straitjacket.
In the “unmeasured” works, Kolesnikov creates an almost unearthly illusion. The dynamic level is barely a breath; the neatly spread chords hover timelessly in space; the harmonic resolutions, when they finally happen, are quietly cathartic. The more formal, glitzy dance numbers are played with bell-like precision, in some ways reminiscent of Glenn Gould, but never so mechanically intense. These are genuinely expressed musical performances.
So how did Kolesnikov achieve this “conversion to piano” of Couperin so convincingly? For a start, he tells me, it involved a widespread search for the right piano.
“You cannot do most of those pieces on any piano. You need one with a little bit of controversial quality,” he argues. “You need one with a lot of clarity and singing tone, but which allows for powerful percussiveness at times: basically a piano with reduced mid-frequency.”
The instrument he found for the purposes of recording was, he says, “pure luck”. But even then, it required piano makers Yamaha to provide him with two sets of keyboard action: one – “a little bit more mellow, more singing” – for the lyrical stuff; the other – “a more tactile sound, brighter, more rhetorical” – for the explosive numbers. Try working out which is which on this album. There’s no sense of chopping and changing, just one seamless musical journey.
In Edinburgh next week, Kolesnikov addresses more familiar piano territory, when he completes a week-long UK tour with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4 (alongside Schubert’s Unfinished and Dvorak’s Seventh Symphonies) under the baton of Ben Palmer, who replaces the advertised Petr Altrichter.
I put it to Kolesnikov that this Beethoven is another work full of hidden qualities, especially those subliminal unaccompanied opening bars, where the pianist has it in his power to dictate the direction of the ensuing performance. “It is an extremely exposed moment,” he agrees. “It feels like a moment of extreme possibilities. It looks so simple, yet it’s so easy to get it wrong.
“So much depends on the actual instrument and the acoustics. You can make the chords quite soft if the piano is good, and that is probably how it was intended by Beethoven. But with some contemporary pianos you cannot really do this without being percussive, so then you have to play legato tricks with the pedal.”
Kolesnikov was last in Edinburgh a year ago to perform in the Edinburgh International Festival as part of the Queen’s Hall series. But the opportunity to hear him play one of the great piano concertos in the Usher Hall is a golden opportunity to see exactly why he is fast becoming hot property on the international solo circuit.
Born in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk in 1989, Kolesnikov studied at the Moscow State Conservatoire, and won several major piano competitions before moving to London, where he is now based. He became a BBC New Generation Artist in 2012, signed for Hyperion Records in 2014, and featured in the recent 100th issue of Pianist magazine as one of its nominated “stars of tomorrow”.
But he is not someone who eschews interests outside music. “If I’m not practising, I lead a very normal life,” says the young Russian. He openly confesses to having “a weird hobby”. “I have a fascination for vintage perfumes.” Collecting them, he insists, not wearing them.”
The obsession goes back to his childhood. “I was interested in smells, and remember asking my mother to buy miniature versions of perfumes that were very difficult and quite expensive to get in Russia,” he recalls. “From that I got interested in how perfumes work, what is in them and how they are put together. It is a very complex science and it would be one of my greatest dreams, if I wasn’t a pianist, to be a parfumier.” As it happens, he owns examples that date back to the start of the 20th century.
Does this curious interest in any way interact with Kolesnikov’s musical life? “Of course it does,” he says. “The most important aspect of a perfume is the balance and interrelation between the component parts and the ultimate form and composition of the finished product. The same essential relationship exists in music.”
Are we talking “hidden qualities” again? Yes, he says. “Open the bottle, let the oxygen in and wonderful, unexpected things happen.”
I suppose you could say the same about the music of Beethoven. Who knows what hidden scents will be released when Kolesnikov opens the piano lid next week?
Pavel Kolesnikov performs Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4 with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra at the Usher Hall on 22 April. For tickets from £12.50, tel: 0131-225 1188. Couperin: Dances from the Bauyn Manuscript is available now on Hyperion CDA68224