Chopin is far and away the most popular among his coevals, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Liszt, and much of his music is within the grasp of amateur pianists. Responses to him are so deeply and inevitably personal that, in a way, the Mazurkas, Chopin’s preferred dance form, belong to everyone, whether they first experienced them listening to performances or recordings by Rubinstein or Pollini, watching choreography of Fokine or Robbins, or through their own hands. Personally speaking, I don’t recall not recognising at least a couple of mazurkas. All the more astonishing, then, to encounter in Pavel Kolesnikov’s new disc an ideal realisation of these exquisite dances, the likes of which I never dreamt of hearing.
Three sets (Opp 17, 24 and 50) are given complete. But Kolesnikov doesn’t present his thoughtful selection of 24 dances in tedious chronological order. As befits a dazzling bouquet, each blossom is given unique placement for maximum enjoyment of colour and fragrance.
It is Chopin’s dogged repetitions that can lead the mazurka’s most admiring votaries into desperate straits of rhythmic grotesquery. Kolesnikov takes these repetitions at face value, as integral to Chopin’s expressive intent. In his scrupulous observation of all repeats, he seems to revel in endlessly varying them without resort to distorting rubato. Not that Kolesnikov lacks pliancy. Liszt said it: ‘A wind plays in the leaves, life unfolds and develops beneath them, but the tree remains the same – that is the Chopin rubato.’ Kolesnikov does it.
Some of the larger set pieces, Op 59 No 3, Op 24 No 4 or Op 50 No 1, for instance, come to life almost cinematically. One easily imagines a large drawing room cleared of furniture and rugs, its floors swept clean and sprinkled in preparation for a dozen couples whose dancing skill is a joy to behold. The largest of these, Op 50 No 1, unfolds with great affective variety and richly varied sonorities, its tragic utterance chaste, courageous, the whole as tight as the snug fit of a master joiner.
Others speak with seductive charm. The poise of Op 17 No 2 is maintained without a trace of maudlin sentimentality. The rhythmic vitality of Op 33 No 1 keeps any suggestion of morose indulgence at bay. The strikingly different characters of Op 33 No 3, ingratiating, delicate, and the sensual melancholy of Op 68 No 2 share a sense of confiding intimacy. The stuttering rhetoric and gossamer fioritura of Op 17 No 4 are a nocturne in all but name.
The Warsaw Mazurkas are a world unto themselves. KK IIa/3, perhaps the earliest, is lithe and spry with the unselfconsciousness of youth. In the hushed sensuality of KK IIb/5, octaves in the middle contrasting section evoke silver bells, while the trills at the end grip the heart. KK IIb/4 in particular embodies Kolesnikov’s ability to choose the perfect sonorities that seem to instantly encapsulate the character of the music.
There are some mazurkas, such as Op 24 No 3, when an inexplicable kinesthetic magic takes over and the world’s rotation all but stops. Prone to lose its way in rhetorical excess, Op 30 No 2 here remains shapely, proportionate. In the familiar Op 6 No 1, the contrasting middle section borders on the terrifying. The implacable tragedy of Op 56 No 3 is so pervasive, you may find yourself, as I did, clinging to the contrasting middle section as though to a life raft.
I know of no other pianist who combines attention to the smallest detail with such nobility of phrase and cohesive sweep of the dance as a whole. The engineers have captured Kolesnikov’s sound – silvery, deeply resonant – perfectly. Listening to this recording over a period of weeks, Wagner’s description of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony as ‘the apotheosis of the dance’ kept running through my mind. Whether or not Kolesnikov’s new disc will suggest to everyone ‘the apotheosis of the mazurka’, for me these performances are the most beautiful and strikingly original I’ve heard.