The rather startling detail from Kandinsky’s 1930 painting ‘From Light to Dark’ on the cover of this disc offers a clue—this is likely to be a modern, Russian illumination on the hoariest of all sonatas. But that’s a massive oversimplification. In fact Pavel Kolesnikov, who is beginning to border on the prolific—this is his second Hyperion release of 2018, after his magical Louis Couperin recital—offers a truly fresh perspective by placing the ‘Moonlight’ within a lattice of lesser-known early Beethoven; the G major sonata Op 14 No 2, the Bagatelles Op 33, a sequence of four short movements without opus number which open the disc, and the wonderful C minor Variations of 1806 that close it. This would make an inventive programme in any case, but judging by his previous form one strongly suspects that Kolesnikov will have something unique to bring to all of this repertoire, a rather striking pre-judgement given that it is only his fourth commercial release. Part of this young artist’s singular appeal is a quirky approach to repertoire and programme-building that seemingly characterises his live recitals as well as his recordings. He shares this spirit of adventure with his close contemporary Igor Levit, though they are self-evidently very different types of player. Here Kolesnikov’s ruminative approach and his delicate shifts in dynamic, colour and accent demand the most contemplative attention from listeners and never seem contrived, wanton, or attention-seeking. In fact even the most familiar music here evolves with rare spontaneity.
Of the four short movements that open the disc, the delightful Andante is rather gnomic and self-contained, whereas the C minor Presto conveys a more overt sense of fun. The ever reliable Andrew Keener ensures that the huge dynamic range of Kolesnikov’s sound in this piece is caught in as natural a perspective as possible. The second and longer of the two Allegretto movements seems to offer tiny glimpses of the gamut of Beethoven’s mercurial inner self, moods which Kolesnikov differentiates masterfully.
The ‘Moonlight’ begins with Kolesnikov’s characteristically distinctive, unassuming and gentle pianism. In his uniquely humane way, this pianist allows the listener to focus anew on the music. This is magical playing by anybody’s standards, it must come from deep within, and suddenly those Kandinsky crescent moons seem even more apt. The risks Kolesnikov takes with accents and stresses in the tiny Allegretto are tastefully judged again to reveal the unexpected novelty of this music. The finale is elegantly shaped, brilliantly dispatched, yet possibly as agitato as ever I’ve heard it. Here this movement seems particularly feverish and restless; it disturbs as much as it impresses. The Hyperion sound is something else. This ‘Moonlight’ teems with insight and ambiguity, and leaves an indelible impression that deepens with each listen.
In his typically erudite but amiable note Richard Wigmore concedes that Beethoven’s earliest set of Bagatelles, Op 33 may ultimately be ‘shavings from his workshop’ but finds that they each display characteristic flashes of subtlety, humour and originality. In the first piece Kolesnikov conveys deadpan charm, whereas he revels in the abrupt offbeats and manic contrasts of the second. If these might seem a little exaggerated to some tastes I am pretty sure the composer would have allowed himself an affectionate smirk had he been around to experience this droll account. The gentle poetry of the fourth emerges in a delightfully understated reading with a perfectly judged denouement. The fifth and seventh pieces are both scherzos; Kolesnikov dispatches both with insouciance, brilliance and real charm—he’s certainly not afraid to ramp up the dynamic contrasts in the fifth, while the narrative thread of the sixth is perfectly conveyed, the pianist’s affectionate characterisation presented with the panache of a seasoned storyteller. One rarely hears the colour and vivacity in these seven pieces that this young Siberian projects in this spry, imaginative reading.
The pair of brief Op 14 sonatas emerged immediately after the Pathétique and are considered by some commentators to form a collection of three with their renowned Op 13 predecessor. They certainly occupy less emotionally fraught terrain and were presumably designed for the domestic market. Op 14 no 2 is all about the beat and Kolesnikov makes the most of Beethoven’s Haydnesque rhythmic puzzles which characterise its outer movements, although it’s his understated playing that most touches the listener. Nor is the toy-soldier march material that drives the Andante immune to ambiguities of syncopation; here Kolesnikov’s delivery is precise and unfailingly affectionate. Wigmore compares its final chord to the loud crash in Haydn’s ‘Surprise’ symphony, and the relish with which Kolesnikov attacks it certainly presents a challenge to the listener in avoiding such an association.
There can be little argument that the Variations in C minor, WoO 80 of 1806 constitute Beethoven’s most monumental work without an opus number. This is a chaconne in all but name, while its harmonic structure is surely related to that of La folia. Kolesnikov doesn’t hold back in the theme, which seems swift, but not to the point where he creates a rod for his own back. The staccati in the first variations are magical. Kolesnikov amplifies the dynamic contrasts throughout the piece, with great taste and mesmerising technique, but takes great care not to overdramatise this aspect of the work. He elicits some astonishing colours from the Steinway in the central variations. The two throwaway chords that end the work neatly summarise Kolesnikov’s playing of all of this music—he unerringly holds the listener’s rapt attention without ever overtly seeking it. While the playing itself is utterly compelling, I really can’t recall ever hearing a more cleanly recorded account of this piece. It concludes an atypical and revealing portrait of the first half of Beethoven’s career, in what is a thoughtfully planned and perfectly executed recital. In short it’s yet another exquisite piano disc from Kolesnikov and Hyperion.