Stravinsky's Rite of Spring: 'The Intense Version'

Ahead of their piano duo appearances at the East Neuk Festival, Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy tell David Kettle about the challenges of performing Stravinsky’s orchestral shocker using just one instrument and four hands

Samson Tsoy (left) and Pavel Kolesnikov PIC: Joss Mckinley
Samson Tsoy (left) and Pavel Kolesnikov PIC: Joss Mckinley

Cramming Stravinsky’s monumental dance of death The Rite of Spring into the – well, let’s call it the intimate interior of Crail’s Church Hall, seems like an ambitious undertaking for Fife’s East Neuk Festival. It’s one of the most notorious pieces of music written during the 20th century, and still has the power to shock even more than a century after its Paris premiere famously provoked a riot.

But this is no ordinary Rite (if there is such a thing). It’s a version all of whose ferociousness and rhythmic energy has been boiled down into the hands of just two musicians on a single instrument – a piano duet. And it’ll be performed by the Russian-born Pavel Kolesnikov and Kazakh-born Samson Tsoy, both now resident in London, and two of the most exciting young pianists around today.

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“We were both students when we first learnt it,” explains Tsoy, “and we really fell in love with the piece.” It’s become something of a musical calling card for them, and a thoroughly authentic one, too – the piano duet version was created by Stravinsky himself. “It’s a bit obscure why he did it,” admits Kolesnikov, “but it appears that Stravinsky did play this version with Debussy. And it was probably performed to build up anticipation before the official premiere.”

But isn’t it just a watered-down version of the kaleidoscopic orchestral music? Not a bit of it, according to Tsoy and Kolesnikov. “It’s very polished – it’s definitely not just a rehearsal score, or a ‘work in progress’,” explains Kolesnikov. “I’d say the rhythmic side of it is probably even more intense,” adds Tsoy.

The two pianists play this beast of a piece at their morning recital on 2 July, amid what feels like a rich and thoroughly celebratory return to full, live events from the East Neuk Festival. Another challenge for them, however, is simply finding their way around the composer’s fistfuls notes in such close proximity. How do they get to grips with the logistics, without the aid of a choreographer? “Hours of work!” laughs Tsoy. “And it helps if you’re very comfortable with each other, of course.”

It also helps, therefore, that Kolesnikov and Tsoy are partners in real life as well as musical life. How do they feel their relationship adds to their musical performance? “Well, you do get to spend a lot of time together!” jokes Kolesnikov. “There’s something about knowing each other on different levels,” Tsoy continues. “It’s about getting to know the other person’s patterns of thought, being able to understand how they’re perceiving things, and how they might play as a result. But on the other side, the number of arguments we have is just scary. Then you remember them later on, and you just can’t believe you actually said those things.”

“Yeah, we should record them all and put them on a YouTube channel,” laughs Kolesnikov. More seriously, however, both men feel like they’re able to grow together personally and musically as a result of their partnership. “It’s a very joyful experience,” explains Kolesnikov, “but of course there’s a bit of drama as well. I always think that playing on two pianos or piano duet is a more intense chamber experience than any other. You’re sharing the same instrument, so you’re sharing the music in a very different way to, say, a violin and piano, with their very different sounds and personalities. It’s almost as if you merge with each other – which can be a very painful process. But it’s miraculous when it happens. It’s about forgetting your own ego, and letting go. It’s one of the most humbling experiences you can have – like finding something beyond your own ideas.”

There are more chances to experience Tsoy and Kolesnikov’s remarkable partnership at the East Neuk Festival in the very different settings of Schubert duets on 30 June and 1 July – and they return to Scotland on 27 July for more Schubert and Brahms at Music at Paxton. But miss their Rite of Spring at your peril.

Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy perform Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring at the East Neuk Festival on Saturday 2 July. The Festival runs from 29 June to 3 July