Classical Music Album Review: Pavel Kolesnikov & Samson Tsoy — A Fabulous Four-Hand Team

By Susan Miron

Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy’s debut CD is breathtaking, released a few months after the pair’s acclaimed performance at Carnegie Hall earlier this year.

When I first heard pianist Pavel Kolesnikov playing an album of music by Renaldo Hahn, I was so entranced by his beautiful playing that I bought all of his recordings and managed, stealthily, to attend a private concert of him playing Chopin this spring. What an amazing musician, one of compelling poetic sensibility and intelligence.

Kolesnikov’s latest CD (on harmonia mundi), with his longtime partner Samson Tsoy, features two major pieces by Schubert (Divertissement à la hongroise, Fantasy in F Minor) and a “reflection piece” on Schubert’s Fantasy that the duo commissioned from Leonid Desyatnikov. (It debuted last year at the Edinburgh Festival.) The pianists have been performing as a duo since 2009, but this may be the first time music-lovers will hear Tsoy, Kolesnikov’s long-term partner on- and offstage, on disc. The two musicians met as teenagers at Moscow Conservatory in 2007; they immediately became close partners performing piano duos.

Kolesnikov, whose parents are scientists, is from Siberia. Tsoy, who has a Korean father and a Russian-Jewish mother, was born in Kazakhstan. He was a teenage karate champion before concluding that the sport was “too traumatic” for his hands. The two moved to London in 2011 and both studied with Norma Fisher at the Royal College of Music. In 2012, Kolesnikov became a sensation when he won the Honens International Piano Competition, the world’s largest piano prize. Marooned at home during the pandemic, the pair began to seriously explore the four-hand repertoire; they played concerts to no or few audience members. Many of these “pandemic” concerts can be found on YouTube.

Their debut CD is brilliant, released a few months after their acclaimed debut at Carnegie Hall earlier this year. In an interview for the NYTimes, Kolesnikov explained the benefits of playing with a long-term musical partner, as opposed to being assigned to a musician at a festival with the two eventually going their separate ways.

It’s a shared heart, a shared soul that you somehow need to magically achieve. And that is something that can only come with years: with years of experience, and years of knowing and understanding each other.

Schubert began work on his Divertissement à la Hongroise for piano four-hands in the summer of 1824. According to his friend, the Hungarian singer Baron Carl Freiherr von Schönstein, Schubert jotted down a Hungarian melody he heard being sung by a young woman working in a count’s kitchen. He incorporated the melody into the finale of his divertissement. It is the same tune he used for his Ungarische Melodie in B minor, D. 817. This disc introduced me to the Divertissement, for which I am quite grateful. What a dramatic introduction to a rarely heard Schubert four-hand composition.

Leonid Desyatnikov’s Trompe-l’œil, commissioned by the duo as “a reflection piece” on Schubert’s Fantasy in F Minor, serves as a transition– it is placed between Schubert’s Divertissement à la hongroise and the Fantasy. When his piece was premiered at Aldeburgh in 2023, the composer said:

When I was first considering this piece, for some obscure reason a short story by Jorge Luis Borges came to mind — “Pierre Ménard, Author of the Quixote.” In it, Borges imagines a totally fictional author, Pierre Ménard, who has taken on the task of rewriting the first book of Don Quixote in period Spanish. I wanted to undertake a similar exercise with Schubert’s Fantasy, albeit without quoting its first theme. I started to go through the piece step by step. The Fantasy is an inanimate object. You can observe it calmly and make your own mental image of it.

For Kolesnikov and Tsoy, space and setting serve as crucial elements in their music-making. During the pandemic they performed Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen at a former multistory car park in London, while this summer they brought back concerts at Aldeburgh’s historic Jubilee Theatre, where they placed audience members on stage as they performed works by Bach and Kurtág on upright pianos placed in the stalls. Another distinctive presentation had them perform Prokofiev’s Cinderella in the Muziekgebouw loading bay. Their next project will be a digital installation at Antwerp’s MoMu that will include a rendition of Schubert’s Fantasy along with choreography by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. The two pianists also founded the Ragged Music Festival.

Finally, Schubert’s perennially much loved — and much recorded — Fantasy receives a spectacular performance here. In the album’s liner notes, the duo observe:

Our recording of the Fantasy is very different from the many interpretations of the piece that we have given — or at least tried to give — on the concert stage. Strangely, in the studio it becomes a kind of emotional sponge. It is not isolated from the pieces around it; the dramatic and sonic components of its companion pieces find their way into its organism…. Through the association with Desyatnikov’s new piece the Fantasy was displaced from its customary box, effecting a fundamental change of perspective. In the light of what’s going on in the world, we think that it’s important to distance ourselves from idealising the Fantasy as a perfect, smoothly rounded and amenable piece. There is also a place for angularity. Just as Desyatnikov refrains from smoothing and polishing the piece like a musical Brancusi.

The duo’s performance of Schubert’s Fantasy is stunning; this is a recording that is as good as or better than many made by far more famous pianists.

Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 30 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for the Arts Fuse and the Boston Musical Intelligencer.

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