2018 may be the anniversary year of the most famous member of the Couperin dynasty, François (born 1668), but his uncle Louis (c.1626-1661) receives deserved attention on this revelatory release from Pavel Kolesnikov. The format and structure of his programme is, itself, an inspired achievement as the Bauyn Manuscript (assembled after 1676) drawn upon simply consists of a large number of dances and other items for the harpsichord, and not only by Couperin. Kolesnikov has woven together seventeen pieces by the latter to forge three substantive Suites, and included a handful of other pieces in complementary keys to link them.
Couperin may have been one of the prominent French Baroque clavecinistes, but his music takes on a new and equally sympathetic character from Kolesnikov on a Yamaha piano. He is fully conversant with the techniques, idioms and colours of such Baroque music, and replicates that with idiosyncratic flair, sidestepping the question of ‘authenticity’. Instead, the artistic validity is demonstrated in his spontaneous execution of music that is as melodically attractive as it is harmonically fastidious and sophisticated, and really the equal of J. S. Bach, never mind any of the subsequent school of keyboard musicians in France or any other country. Hence, Kolesnikov takes the music seriously with the delectably sprung character of his playing (of the notated score, as well as stylistically important ornamentation) and the intimate nature of his interpretations overall.
Despite the meditative mood and the fact that he rarely rises above mezzo-forte in volume, Kolesnikov remains persuasive and compelling, hypnotically so in the repeated harmonic patterns of the ‘Chaconne’ that ends the D-minor Suite, or the independent Chaconne in F, where the principal section is warmly strummed as though mimicking a lute or guitar. In both examples, as in the following Chaconne in G-minor, Kolesnikov subtly but assuredly sustains appropriate momentum towards their climaxes. Even in quieter movements rhythms remain pert and supple, which give the moderately or slowly-paced dances a sense of dignity and easefulness.
In faster numbers the rhythms are brought out more emphatically, such as the decorous way in which those of the D-minor Suite’s ‘Courante’ almost trip over themselves with deliberate humour; the beats of the G-minor Suite’s ‘Gigue’ are marked off with spread chords, imaginatively implemented by Kolesnikov despite not being notated; and a more vigorous attack is made upon the equivalent dance of the A-major Suite. He does not, however, become the prisoner of the meters of each movement, even though utilising rubato rarely, as the tempo of each retains clarity and vitality, calling to mind the similar irresistible charisma of Glenn Gould on the piano in the music of Bach and earlier composers, though in Kolesnikov’s case, intrusive personality does not take over.
That flexibility grows organically out of the improvisatory freedom which Kolesnikov is invited to employ in the D-minor and A-major Suites’ unmeasured ‘Preludes’ (a form which Couperin seems to have invented) where bare notes are written on the page without rhythm, in order to give only an indication of the basic harmonic structure. With judicious pedalling – usually applied to the lower or lowest notes of a phrase – he imparts the same indefatigable musical logic that pertains to his realisations of the strictly notated dances which follow, and they are a gift to a pianist like him who is able to extemporise around such unadorned outlines so convincingly. That approach persuasively informs ‘Tombeau de M de Blancrocher’ (slow and pensive, and sounds unmeasured despite its notated meter) and the ‘Passacaille’ conclusion of the G-minor Suite, where the pedalling applied to the rising scales makes sense in order to realise its wistful suspensions.
It is an irrelevant consideration trying to categorise the overall result, for Kolesnikov’s performances transcend genre, tradition or repertoire. Rather, his innate responses to these twenty-two pieces will surely be of interest to anybody sensitive to music’s expressive capacities. One can only hope that Kolesnikov will make another compilation from the Bauyn Manuscript.