Just when you think there are enough recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, here comes one that makes the music sound fresh off the page. The pianist Pavel Kolesnikov says he had 'shied away' from performing Bach until he was invited to collaborate with the dancer and choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker on the Goldbergs; the result, with De Keersmaeker dancing and Kolesnikov playing live, has been seen by a few lucky European audiences this year.
Recorded in the studio, Kolesnikov’s performance stands alone: there is certainly no sense of the equation being less than perfectly balanced. The theme sings softly and simply—and then the first variation bursts out, speaking clearly, the two melodic lines chasing each other down the keyboard like kittens. These contrasts of texture, between softness and defined edge, at first make it feel as if the music is going in and out of focus—but that’s not quite it, because every single note is set forth by Kolesnikov with crystal clarity. It might rather be that we are moving in and out of Kolesnikov’s head: some variations feel 'public' and consciously articulated, while some unfold as if privately.
In a piece in which every passage of the music is repeated, he never says the same thing twice. Take, as an example, the eighth variation: he first phrases it three beats to the bar, which makes the music sound like two people talking over each other. Repeated, but phrased with two beats to the bar, it becomes orderly and elegant.
He is playing on a modern Yamaha piano but the tone is soft, rounded and woody, more reminiscent of a fortepiano than a concert grand. How far will he be able to push that sound? Far enough, and when the final variation emerges from the afterglow of the one before—one of just a few moments where Kolesnikov uses the sustaining pedal for effect—it blooms through a long crescendo into something not brash but gloriously full, before receding again for the final reminiscence of the theme. Kolesnikov’s Goldbergs are softly spoken, but they are also extraordinarily eloquent.