Pavel Kolesnikov is a young pianist who has performed internationally in the recent years (including appearances at BBC Proms and Wigmore Hall) and recorded several discs. His upcoming recital in QEH will be on 15 January 2019, and Pavel talked to Yulia Savikovskaya at length about making the programme for this concert. He could also be heard with Lawrence Power on 12 May 2019, playing Brahms’ sonatas for violin and viola. We met with Pavel in Pain Quotidien near Notting Hill Gate, and had a long conversation where I was stricken by Pavel’s comprehensive perception of music and its influence on the listeners – in his mind everything seems to be interconnected, and he thinks of his concerts as experiences where everything matters. He also dreams of changing the format of concerts to help the audiences immerse into the music, prepares his programmes meticulously, and thinks that music and art in general help to transfer the knowledge we would not otherwise get in our everyday life.

Pianist Pavel Kolesnikov. Image: Eva Vermandel

Yulia Savikovskaya: What was it like when you first felt you could become a musician? What was your first encounter with music and then how you decided that you will do it professionally?

Pavel Kolesnikov: It is something that is very difficult to pinpoint because my way into music was very gradual and natural. I was born into the family of scientists and music was always around. As a normal kid in Russia, I went to the normal music school. I was just very lucky with my teachers who picked me up from the beginning and gradually directed me into the music. It is hard for me to remember one exact moment. I probably knew I would become a musician by the time I was 15 or 16 years old, but before that I did other things and went to normal school along with my musical education. I was playing violin and piano at the time.

Some musicians like to remember the first LP they listened to or the first concert they attended. Did you have such moment of epiphany when you listened to music and felt something our of the ordinary? Or Is there a later experience you remember more consciously?

Actually yes, the big moment for me was when Teodor Currentzis arrived to Novosibirsk. He became musical director in 2004, and I was 15 at the time. When Currentzis started his tenure, he began picking the students from the Conservatory for his orchestra. My friend violinist Afanasy Tchupin, just a year older than me, became a concertmaster – he was an exceptional violinist. So eventually I was introduced to Currentzis himself, and I even played at some rehearsals as a violinist, and this meeting was very important for me. I never before encountered a musician like that, I never saw that kind of attitude to music and to work and such clarity of vision.

How did the decision come along to change your instrument from violin to piano and how did your relationship with piano had formed with it being your second instrument for a while?

I think I just felt much more comfortable with piano, and I had an absolutely amazing first piano teacher Olga Gvozdeva was trying to do some unusual things – at least for that time. She was teaching at a music school, and she knew that 99 percent of these kids are not going to make music their profession, so there was no point in torturing them with exercises as they usually do in Russian music schools. She thought that her main role was to lead them into the world of music and to give them an opportunity to understand and love it. So she had very particular methods, so that her students did not really realize they were doing exercises. It was about interest and excitement in classical music, there were stories and a lot of playing in her lessons. And she gave us a wide repertoire – a repertoire that we wanted to play. By the age of 9 I was able to give full recitals, and I did. We went to little villages near Novosibirsk and to other music schools where she gave masterclasses and my role was to be a showcase of her method (laughs). And then, when I was 14, she did the most extraordinary thing – she gave me away. Perhaps, I was her best student then, and she said that she felt she could not teach me anything else and that I needed to go to another teacher. Teachers never willingly let good students go.

What were the specific features of the educational system in Moscow Conservatory – now that you can retrospectively compare it with European musical schools?

The most important thing about Moscow Conservatory is that there is much more communication between students themselves. There are a lots of group activities that you cannot avoid even if you wish toand you feel very close to your peers. Another characteristic thing is that when you go to your instrument class, very often you come there and there is a line of students waiting for a lesson. Your colleagues and peers sit there and listen to whatever you play and to whatever your professor says to you – it is open for everyone. That creates a very competitive atmosphere. Some people find it dreadful, I found it very exciting and loved it. Here in the West it does not exist, and I had a lot of properly private education in London and Brussels, but I enjoyed those days in Moscow very much.

Would you say that the school of Russian pianism still exists?

That is a very difficult question. There is something, but it becomes more and more diluted, as people are traveling and there are lots of Russians teaching around the world. Also, there is much more information available, so it is very unusual and rare now to be attached and worship your professor in the way it was in the 1970s-1980s or even 1990s.

How did you form your decision to move abroad and was it a normal trend among your friends at the time? Or were you an exception? How did you end up in London and Brussels?

Talking about the trend, there surely was one and probably there still is. In a way, we were forced to go to different places. When I was studying (seven years ago, in early 2010s) there was hardly any opportunity for a young musician to perform and to expose himself or herself in Russia. Now things are changing rapidly, the initiative comes from Gergiev and Moscow Philharmonia. But at that moment it felt natural for people to go somewhere else and try to find their way into profession.

In fact, I was really surprised to see how many things influenced you. Is there a programme of self-education that you follow, or are these things happening spontaneously?

They are happening spontaneously. I am drawn to certain things – perfume, fashion and photography – but these things are unpredicted. I like to go to that direction, because it is less literal than taking inspiration from music and performances. Being less literal, it is somehow less obliging. So you get the same impulses, but as you are translating them, they are transformed into something of yourself. While with music it is always very difficult to overcome some sort of copying.

Imagine you are talking to someone who is not a musician. Sometimes for people attending a classical concert is just relaxed listening, getting some unstructured sonic experience. However, I was fascinated to read about your vision of music in time – you say that it is exploration of ideas, forming mental phrases through listening. My question to you is how does one learn to hear the things your describe? How to learn to listen to music intellectually and seriously and not consider it only a light piece of entertainment?

I think it is like with everything, really. The key thing here is to take a little bit of effort. This kind of effort feels almost like a physical one. When you go to a gym, and you do a new exercise, and you suddenly discover there is a muscle there when it is moving, and you need a lot of effort to develop it once you have discovered it. And this is sostrong and real that you won’t forget this feeling. It is the same with art. You need to find a way to make an effort towards a piece of art. It is an effort of your soul, your brain, your whole being. And then a piece of art opens to you in a different way. This is how I can describe it – it is the same with perfume, music, visual arts. You need to concentrate and  make this first step, and then the  skill begins to develop. Then things open up to you and your relationship with arts becomes deeper and freer. It’s one of the most rewarding, intoxicating things I can think of.

Pianist Pavel Kolesnikov. Image: Eva Vermandel

Does it happen with listening to recordings or going to concerts or both?

You can do it in both cases, it is just that recording is a different medium. Also there are concerts and concerts. When I go to concerts, I almost never listen to music played in a way a normal non-musician will. It always feels like a lesson to me. I try to understand the question of stage presence and how things are communicated from the stage. In a recording, such communication is done in a completely different way.We see things with our eyes and we also feel certain energy which is hard to describe, and a concert is usually a combination of visual component, personal energy and sound. Everything we feel or think about person contributes to our perception of music he or she is making, it is part of the whole experience. In a recording you firstly have a cover of a CD, then you have the sound, but also in many ways you have a certain image of an artist that has been formed by live performances, your experiences, interviews and everything you know. On the other hand, when you are in a concert hall you have a presence of live person on stage, here and now, which can be very strong. And as a performer, you should be aware that this comprehensive perception is happening.

You had a solo recital at Wigmore Hall and you will have one at Queen Elizabeth Hall soon, you also gave performances in an ensemble and will be doing that again at Southbank Centre in spring, and you performed as a soloist with BBCSO at the Barbican in the end of 2018. Could you elaborate on the differences between these activities?

They are all connected to each other, and you learn from each of them, and you incorporate your respective experience when you work on a different format. Performing a concert with an orchestra is in a way the most primitive of them all, paradoxically. You go on stage for a short period of time, you don’t have to deal with programming, usually you agree with a conductor and orchestra on a piece and that’s it. You don’t construct your own world. You are part of the performance – and I actually think that this format is becoming quite dusty, as this is usually a starter (Ouverture) in the beginning, than a concerto, and then a symphony in the second half of the evening – it is always the same thing. I think there are so many ways of making it much more interesting. The programming could be much more elaborate. Solo pieces could be included, or works could be performed in a different order.

The second activity for a pianist would be ensemble work.

The ensemble work is fascinating when you are working with a right colleague and have more flexibility in terms of rehearsal time. As you are working with less people and more tete-a-tete, you can do things more quickly and work more intensely. When you have this luxury of working with someone who you know well and who you share the views on music and life with, then it becomes incredibly interesting. You are learning so much from each other and you inspire each other very much, and this kind of experience is ideal for me. I try to translate it into my solo performances. This is something I have been thinking a lot – even when you give a solo recital, you are never alone. When you are on stage, there is another figure, that of composer, and I don’t think that you can complete merge with that figure, nor can you completely submit to that figure. You are always in some kind of a dialogue with the composer. Sometimes the personality of a composer is very forceful and it pushes you back, and it becomes very little of you and very much of a composer. Some composers’personalities, on the contrary, are very elusive, and you have to be very careful in order not to push yourself too much on them. Here it is always about going backwards and forwards and trying to build something together with that other person that is hidden behind the musical page.In a piece of art you have produced you stand up in fullness of who you are. And this is something I find so fascinating – that you can see what people are without knowing them, but just through listening to them playing, for instance. You immediately recognize so many things that later could be confirmed when you get to know the person. You go like: ‘Yes, of course, I knew that because I heard him or her playing’. I am sure it comes across every time. With great composers the music reflects their personality even in a deeper way. And actually the more technique you have, the more your personality is reflected in what you are doing.

Can you describe your preparation to the forthcoming recital in Queen Elizabeth Hall? You mention that you intertwine Brahms with pieces by other composers so that they stand out in a new way, is it correct

The thing about this Brahms programme is that I picked this Op. 117 – there are only three pieces in it that Brahms wrote in the last period of his life. Undoubtedly,  they are among absolutely the best things he has created. They are so incredibly essential, and strikingly condensed. They are a little bit like wine: when wine is produced, the grape takes in the terroir, the qualities of soil, and the atmosphere, and the sun, and then the wine is created and it becomes an expression of that place. And these pieces are similar – they are incredibly concentrated. Brahms himself was like an old vine, feeding and growing on the cultural context of his time, taking things in very deeply and processing them in a mysterious way. And these pieces are the final product of culture of Brahms’ time.

And in your vision they will work better when they are surrounded by other pieces. 

Yes, I found the combination – and I did it very intuitively. It always goes like this when I prepare my programmes – I go with my intuition, and later I discover why I went there, and I find strong reasons. So the first Intermezzo is paired with Beethoven’s early sonata (No.4, Opus 7), an unusual sonata which is so mature that it is even more mature than some pieces he wrote much later. The second Intermezzo is paired with music by Louis Couperin, a composer of early French baroque. It feels almost like trying to introduce the composers who have not met to each other, posthumously, and to find common grounds for them. Brahms probably did not know music of Louis Couperin although he loved French baroque, and he knew it well – he was even involved in preparing the edition of François Couperin’s pieces. One can see why he loved this music – and this opens an interesting side in him, as you might think of Brahms as very solid, very heavy, very German composer, while French baroque music is so different – and so seductive. But it has emotional fragility and intensity, that piercing feeling of beauty – and I think Brahms loved that. The music of Louis Couperin was not really discovered in his lifetime, but if he did see those pieces, he would perhaps have loved them even better than those of François Couperin. You see, Louis was strongly influenced by German music, and his own works have a combination of German intensity and French baroque seductiveness and fragility, interest in our little human problems. It is intense and personal at the same time.

Pianist Pavel Kolesnikov. Image: Eva Vermandel

The third Intermezzo, finally, is paired with pieces of Tchaikovsky. It is a risky combination, because the two composers seem to be so different, even antagonist, particularly when you look at their symphonic output. Of course, Tchaikovsky simply didn’t have the kind of tremendous compositional technique possessed by Brahms, and Brahms almost never managed, nor wished to manage to achieve in his work the degree of emotional openness of Tchaikovsky. And interestingly, the two of them met in 1889, and they liked each other on a personal level but had little sympathy to each other’s music. Well, I have some thoughts on why that happened. First of all, they were not informed enough about each other’s music. Also, and more importantly, they worked in a very similar sphere of human emotion, but approached it from completely different standpoints. Throughout all his life Brahms was ambitiously perfecting his compositional technique, but in a way only in his latest years he was able as if to relax, rely freely on what he has achieved, and let his incredible inner emotionality, fragility, sensitivity- and insecurity! – pour out into the music, to a truly astonishing effect . With all the technique he had acquired he was able to express all this in a strikingly natural and concentrated way. Tchaikovksy, on the contrary, seem to be always going from the emotional side, acquiring technique as he went along. The later the pieces are written, the smoother they are from the technical point of view, although, of course, one never finds here the kind of craftsmanship and complexity of Brahms. However, I do think there is a lot similar between the two of them. Even as personalities they were both very fragile. Tchaikovsky in a very obvious way, while with Brahms things were always repressed and hidden behind impenetrable façade. His strange, unfulfilled love affair with Clara Schumann and the whole unresolvable ethical tangle that was his relationship with Schumanns, became a wound that was never healed, that was always with him. There is so often that bitter feeling of past being irretrievable in Brahms’ works – something that you long for so much but will never attain, something that you may have had once but then lost forever. He felt that deeply, very deeply – and so did Tchaikovsky, who was also so much into that area of human emotion. This is their meeting point. So I found this piece of Tchaikovsky called ‘Passé lointain’, and it is in the same key and it starts with the same harmonic move as the Intermezzo by Brahms, it has similar melodic features and ideas, it is almost like a twin piece. When you stumble upon such an incredible coincidence, it is impossible to disregard. For me this piece became that unique vantage point from which you can observe the proximity of Brahms and Tchaikovsky, which otherwise seems unlikely.

Speaking about perception of your work by audiences – do you think that in future you will be expected to channel works by Russian composers, or that you will be completely free in your choices?

I am almost completely free in my choices even now. Of course, people are asking for Russian repertoire, because it is easier to sell: there is always this sentiment about musicians playing music of their nationality. But it is just not the way it works. There are some Russian composers whom I feel very strongly attached to and like playing their music, like I love playing Tchaikovsky. But for instance I don’t play any Prokofiev at all – I might play a couple of pieces, but not much of his music, this is just not my thing somehow. I don’t want to be influenced by such expectations. I think one should do only things one is feeling very strongly about.

How do you feel about modern composers? There are many knew piano concertos and pieces written – do you discover them, do you commision pieces for yourself, do you collaborate with someone?

I haven’t done that yet, I feel that the right moment has not come yet. I am constantly exploring them, but there are not many things I’ve fallen in love. Last season I programmed some music by the German composer Helmut Lachenmann. I heard some of his pieces and they absolutely blew me away – I heard some string quartets by him live at Wigmore. I also like the Austrian composer Beat Furrer very much, so I constantly think of programming his music, but it has not happened yet. I like Arvo Pärt and I played his Lamentate for piano and orchestra with BBC Philharmonic Orchestra for the radio broadcast in 2015. Also, this opera by George Benjamin – ‘Written on Skin’ – was one of the highlights of my year, I heard it a few times at the time. He collaborates with Martin Crimp and Katie Mitchell, and I love her work very much – I am in love with her Lucia de Lammermoor at the Royal Opera House.

My last question would be – as an anthropologist, I am trying to understand what role music plays in our live or will play in future. How does it affect us mentally, why is it such a big part of our lives?

I think that one interesting thing (among others) about music that it operates with abstract language. Unlike any other art, it started with abstraction and then it created a certain vocabulary which is extremely universal. And this a vocabulary to which we react in a very immediate way – it hits us before we know. And it communicates – and in an incredibly direct way – things that otherwise are impossible to communicate or extremely difficult to communicate. It does it in a very concentrated form. And I think we are the only species in this world that mostly communicate verbally – we have developed a language, which is an artificial system, that we communicate with. But art is an alternative communicating system, which of course has its shortcomings, but also has extraordinary benefits. So for me it is a powerful way of exchanging experiences and getting them – a quick and powerful one. You can learn things from art that you would not have learned otherwise, and do it in an immediate, quick and concentrated way. You can explore the emotions that you would otherwise not have explored or would have taken longer time to do. It fascinates me when I think about music and art in general. And it will retain this role in future. You know, Prokofiev dreamed a kind of communication where one would transmit ideas telepathically. I am imagining it could be done in some faraway future, and it somehow will have to do with arts. Art has thispotentiality, do you agree?

And we also must keen in mind the semiotics of our own perception – yes, it may be communicated to us powerfully at this very moment, but we are always ready in different ways to read and perceve it, because it is us who absorb and interpret given information, so one cannnot take for granted the act of transmission just because the sender has done something. So at the very taken moment I can’t know what art has to give me in the fullness of its richness – I can only discover it as I go along, as I get ready for it, as I reach new levels of perception.