Wednesday 2 May 2018

Kolesnikov - Lachenmann, Debussy, Chopin, Liszt, Bach, Louis Couperin, and Schumann, 30 April 2018

Wigmore Hall

Lachenmann: Ein Kinderspiel: ‘Schattentanz’
Debussy: Children’s Corner, interspersed with:
            Lachenmann: Ein Kinderspiel: ‘Akiko’
            Chopin: Mazurka in C-sharp minor, op.30 no.4; Etude in F minor, op.25 no.2
            Liszt: Etude in G-sharp minor, ‘La campanella’, S 141/3
            Lachenmann: ‘Schattentanz’
            Bach: Prelude in C-sharp major, BWV 872
            Lachenmann: Ein Kinderspiel: ‘Filter-Schaukel’
Debussy: Préludes, Book II: ‘Feux d’artifice’
Louis Couperin: Tombeau de Mr de Blancrocher
Schumann: Fantasie in C major, op.17

Pavel Kolesnikov (piano)

This was anything but an ordinary recital. Sometimes, however, an inventive programme can fail in practice, either because it is too inventive for its own good, or because the performer is less than equal to its strenuous demands – or both. Here, Pavel Kolesnikov, whom I had been looking forward to hearing for quite some time – alas, I had to cancel attendance at a Visions de l’Amen with Samson Tsoy – triumphantly, elegantly, even insouciantly swatted like flies any doubts I might have entertained, and proved equal to the task he had set himself not only in his programming, but in his spoken (recorded) introduction, prior to coming on stage. Kolesnikov acknowledged that the programme might have looked like Schumann with a stuffed version of Debussy’s Children’s Corner, but winningly avowed that he would rather the audience have gone hungry than set such a meal before it. Instead, he said, these ‘musical pieces are characters in a play’, all connected by ‘extreme purity of the musical language’. (Again, my ideological alarm bells started ringing; performance and listening would prove me wrong.) Dedicated to Debussy, the recital aimed to show the ‘magical chemical reaction’ his music in particular enjoyed with the music of other composers.

It was with Helmut Lachenmann, however, that the recital proper began: with the ‘Schattentanz’ from his 1980 suite, Ein Kinderspiel. Not with that work’s opening ‘Hänschen Klein’ – perhaps that would have been too easy, too redolent of ‘child’s play’ – but with its closing ‘Schattentanz’. Its opening Nibelheim gallop in the extreme treble of the instrument – typically, the piano’s highest two notes, B and C – was judged, as it must be, with the utmost precision and ease of dynamic gradation: not unlike Mozart, or indeed Debussy. Was that Nibelheim or was it the first movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, or an apotheosis of something or somewhere in between, perhaps, as it were, of the Schattentanz? It could be any of those things, or none. Already, I began to understand, or think I did, what Kolesnikov had meant by ‘extreme purity of the musical language’: not exclusive, but something irreducible. Perhaps Stravinsky had not been wrong after all; nor, however, had Liszt, for there was surely something of Mephistopheles here too. Childhood is not for children, not really. Or, as Lachenmann put it, quoted in Jessica Duchen’s programme note, ‘Although it was written for my son David and partly played in public by my daughter Akiko, who at that time (1980) was seven years old, Kinderspiel is not a pedagogical music or a music intended specially for children either. Childhood and musical experiences related to it are an essential part of every adult’s inner world.’

On, then, to Children’s Corner and its sly wit, Debussy awakening from the shadows of the shadow-dance. Interestingly, ‘Doctor Gradus’ sounded, for all its C major ‘purity’ and for all Kolesnikov’s teasing rubato, all the more modernist in its radical resort to and/or play with tonality. And yes, there was a true sense of a new character being introduced, whether in a play or a novel.  ‘Jimbo’s Lullaby’ again offered character, not caricature, returning one’s thoughts to those of Lachenmann, and so many others, on ‘childhood’, and to those of Kolesnikov on musical purity. For each pitch, each dynamic gradation, one could imagine a quasi-serialist value. ‘Total serialism’, after all, surely owed at least as much to Debussy as to the Second Viennese School, even Webern. Emerging from Debussy, Lachenmann’s ‘Akiko’ sounded almost Romantic: only, of course, because it is. The sense of a strong relationship between pitch and other parameters remained – not despite, but because of its Romanticism. Returning to Debussy, for the ‘Serenade of the Doll’, it worked just as beautifully ‘in itself’ as because of any images that may or may not have been provoked. I especially loved the way Kolesnikov leaned into phrases: related, yet never the same.

Chopin’s C-sharp minor Mazurka, Op.30 no.4, might have sounded mannered in abstracto – but not if one knew some of the great Chopin pianists of the past, and certainly not if one listened to it in context. Here it sounded truly magical, not despite the sometimes extreme level of play with its dance rhythms, but partly on account of that. Was this perhaps itself a form of musique concrète instrumentale? Certainly the way in which Chopin’s harmonies dissolved spoke of Debussy and beyond. The F minor Etude, op.25 no.2, suggested Debussy’s doll returning to stage, dancing a pas de deux with the subject, whoever or whatever it may be, of Lachenmann’s ‘Akiko’. And then the Snow Danced too, Debussy’s harmonic ambiguities as eloquent, as mysterious as I have heard, intensified by Chopin’s preparation. We seemed to be in a state of semi-suspended animation – which, when one thinks about it, we should have to be, for the snow to be dancing. Liszt’s ‘La campanella’ had something of the ballet to it to, albeit a ballet without dancers, like Wagner’s ironic – although how ironic? – late desire for an invisible theatre. The notes themselves were the dancers, perhaps, returning us to Kolesnikov’s æsthetic credo. Liszt, at any rate, was not played to the gallery, but music that brought the gallery to the keyboard itself. In similar vein, the keyboard almost expanded before our ears at the close, an aural equivalent to the growth of the Christmas Tree in The Nutcracker. Lachenmann’s ‘Schattantanz’ returned: the same, different, or both? It was difficult to tell, and that was surely the point.

‘The Little Shepherd’ trod the boards next, seemingly transformed by those experiences, both ‘musical’ and ‘characterful’. The experience was unsettling, rendering necessary our listening – not unlike the music of Luigi Nono, Lachenmann’s teacher. The Bach Prelude that followed (C-sharp major, Book II) sounded as if Dr Gradus had returned, tonally upgraded, as it were, having both learned and spurned the lessons in between, nevertheless taking it all in his stride. Kolesnikov’s playful legato and sheer delight in the music were infectious indeed. ‘Golliwogg’s Cakewalk’ answered the final phrase of the closing fugato, the Tristan music apparently ‘without hammers’. Lachenmann’s ‘Filter-Schaukel’ then sounded the alarm – both against premature applause and as ‘pure’ sonority, its clusters all the weirder in context. It played with both our hearing and our listening. ‘Feux d’artifice’ closed this extraordinary first half, with fireworks that were far from only visual, far from mere display, mere ‘artifice’. Performance is alchemy too.

Louis Couperin’s Tombeau de Mr de Blancrocher opened the second half: more languid and improvisatory than Debussy. And yet, there was a not entirely dissimilar sense of play with the basic musical materials. Dr Gradus, perhaps in a new disguise? Perhaps in a late-night lockdown, at last able truly to let his hair down? For there was, it seemed, something of the jazz world to Kolesnikov’s performance, to this tribute to a lutenist, a relish of its dissonances that yet declined unduly to underline.

For all we know of the connections between Schumann and Debussy, they had rarely sounded so close as here, in the opening to the C major Fantasie. Perhaps that was all the stranger given Kolesnikov’s grand Romantic manner, only rarely unleashed earlier on. The music could melt, of course, quite unlike Debussy’s snow, yet never as anything but an expression of Schumann’s formal dynamism. The characters here? Florestan and Eusebius, of course, yet they were joined by, even changed by reappearances from the earlier cast. Schumann here needs relatively little encouragement to sound like Liszt, yet the encouragement he did receive was beautifully judged, guiding one to hear one composer’s transformational anticipations of another. Brahms was here too, of course: for once, neither too late nor too early. The Innigkeit, however, was entirely Schumann’s own. A kinship with Beethoven – quite absent from the earlier music, I think – was unquestionably apparent – in the second movement, yet its caprice was quite different. Likewise the ‘late Beethoven’ rarity of the closing Adagio, shaped with a true mastery of musical narrative. What a special piece this is, and what a special performance this was. And then, as if to confirm yet also affectionately to mock my construction of the play we had heard, ‘Dr Gradus’ bis: like the Lachenmann repeat in the first half, both the same and anything but the same. There was something rather wonderful to a new beginning, a new limbering up; and there was also a warning, which perhaps I should have taken to heart earlier, that perhaps only music could tell this tale after all.

(This recital was recorded for future broadcast by BBC Radio 3.)