I am holding in my hands a 1905 guidebook to Chopin’s piano pieces. It was prompted, explains the author, GC Ashton Jonson, by the rise of the pianola, the self-playing instrument, serviced by perforated paper rolls, that had finally opened up Chopin’s universe and enabled amateur performers to 'pass the portal hitherto guarded by the dragon of technique and roam at will in his entrancing music-land'.
Ashton Jonson couldn’t have foreseen the digital age, where multitudinous Chopin interpretations from across the 20th century and beyond are available at the click of a button. This week yet another Chopin album arrives, from the Russian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov. What makes this special? Partly it is his choice of repertoire: nine mazurkas, three waltzes and four impromptus, works touched by the decorative demands of music composed more for the salon than public display.
Above and beyond that, it’s the high poetry of his fingering, conjuring from his Yamaha CFX concert grand (recommended retail price £131,000) sounds of such deftness and clarity that my mouth kept dropping open. It happened first in the opening track, the Fantasy-Impromptu, Op 66, with the cascading notes sparkling like diamonds, and continued until the recital’s grand finale, the F minor Fantasy, Op 49, the one piece that breaks the salon mould.
As well as having finger brilliance, Kolesnikov is equally alert to Chopin’s enigmatic and experimental qualities, as in some of the mazurkas, or to the composer’s vein of pensive melancholy, so potent that you want to cry. Careful pauses and kaleidoscopic varieties of touch play their own part in lending these performances their distinctive poetry and grace. No pianola, I’m sure, could have coped with Pavel Kolesnikov.