Wigmore Mondays – Pavel Kolesnikov plays Debussy


Pavel Kolesnikov (piano) plays Debussy’s first book of Préludes

Wigmore Hall, London

Monday, 11 January 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)


Available until 10 February

What’s the music?

Debussy (1862-1918): Préludes, Book 1 (1909-1910); L’isle joyeuse (1904)


Pavel Kolesnikov has not yet recorded any of this repertoire, but a reproduction of his program using available versions can be accessed below, for listeners who cannot hear the BBC broadcast:

About the music

Debussy wrote 24 Préludes for piano, collected in two books but did not approach them in the same way as Chopin, who wrote one in each key. Instead he looked for character pieces, and the first book of Préludes are a fine example of what is often called the composer’s ‘impressionist’ style. By that we mean Debussy would often shade his music in a form that matches the paintings of artists such as Monet and Renoir, leaving them less defined.


Impression: Sunrise by Claude Monet (1872)

Perhaps because he wanted the listener to form their own pictures in their mind’s eye, Debussy left the title of each Prélude until the end of the piece – and even then was not at all conclusive in his naming. La cathédrale engloutie (The submerged cathedral), Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest (What the West Wind has seen), Danseuses de Delphes (Dancers of Delphi) – all are subject matters that need an active imagination to complete the picture.

L’isle joyeuse is a little more defined but not much, being a homage to Jersey, where Debussy holidayed with his new love in the summer of 1904.

These pieces make great technical demands on the pianist but also allow freedom of interpretation, both for player and listener.

Performance verdict

Having already established a reputation as a Debussy interpreter in his Wigmore Hall debut in 2014, BBC New Generation artist Pavel Kolesnikov returned to dazzle with more of the composer’s music.

Yet his approach was not obviously virtuosic, and he often took sensitive liberties with his tempo choices in the Préludes, drawing out the slow pieces especially effectively. These approaches were shown to be completely valid, setting an atmosphere of quiet intensity where I found myself subconsciously leaning forward on several occasions, literally hanging on Kolesnikov’s next note.

Les collines d’Anacapri (The Hills of Anacapri) was especially convincing, as was a totally unhurried Des pas sur la neige (Footsteps in the Snow). La danze de Puck was brilliantly done, an irresistible glint in the jester’s eye, while the stumbling rhythm of Minstrels was expertly controlled. Kolesnikov opened up the detail of Debussy’s inner part writing but never at the expense of his overall impression of each piece, and in L’isle joyeuse this led to painstakingly produced trills, part of an incredibly secure performance that still created a vivid picture of the island.

Full marks to the pianist, too, for overcoming the considerable distraction of latecomers arriving directly in his eye line after a poised account of Danseuses de Delphes. All that was required was a pertinent pause, and he was back in the zone.

What should I listen out for?

1:35 – Danseuses de Delphes (Dancers of Delphi) – immediately a sultry atmosphere is cast, the slow moving music rather mysterious but at the same time oddly enchanting. The block chords create an essence of calm.

There is then a pause while the latecomers are admitted…before…

5:41 – Voiles (Veils) – if anything the heady atmosphere is heightened by this deeply intimate impression, with suggestively chromatic lines in the right hand over a sustained held note in the left. The boundaries are blurred here, the ‘impressionism’ all too evident.

9:31 – Le vent dans la plaine (The Wind in the Plain) – a blustery outlook is set by the left hand oscillations, though this piece proves just as elusive as the wind. Debussy once again uses melodies in a ‘pentatonic’ form (if you played C-Eb-F-G-Bb ascending on the piano those are the notes of the pentatonic scale). Sudden gusts of wind threaten to knock the music off course but it stays true to form, just.

11:47 – Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir (The sounds and fragrances swirl through the evening air) This is an enchanted piece, and indeed is heavily perfumed, as though at the end of a very hot summer’s day. The sustain on the piano means notes can blur together in the listeners’ mind, but there is still a distinct four note theme heard at the start. Kolesnikov really draws out the tension at the end of this piece.

16:20 – Les collines d’Anacapri (The Hills of Anacapri) After a short, nervy start this piece bursts from its cover, with melodies exchanged between the top and bottom of the piano, with sustained but energetic chords in the middle. Then the music gradually ascends to a thrilling end which seems to be in mid-air, with a massive set of five notes high up on the piano at 19:09.

19:21 – Des pas sur la neige (Footsteps in the Snow) Debussy paints some incredibly vivid images on the piano, and the depiction of snow here is cold in the extreme! The quiet dynamic aids this, and the very slow tempo, though the melody does have a forlorn nature, as though in memorial or loss.

24:36 – Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest (What the West Wind has seen) – again Debussy mobilises the piano to portray the unpredictable gusts of the West Wind, through suddenly loud figures in the right hand and rumblings in the bass. Soon we hear crashing octaves high in the right hand, then a rush of notes, leading to a snappy end at 28:21.

28:23 – La fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair) – one of Debussy’s best-loved pieces, this charming portrait uses the pentatonic scale as a basis for its melody (see above) – which sounds rather folk-like in nature. It is an affectionate picture.

30:38 – La sérénade interrompue (Interrupted Serenade) – from simplicity it’s back to a stop-start affair, as though Debussy were portraying the wind again. The whole piece seems to have a short attention span, moving through its thoughts very quickly as though on edge, but ends quietly.

33:13 – La cathédrale engloutie (The Submerged Cathedral) – one of the most famous Préludes, and certainly one of the most mysterious, with blurred imagery in the sustained left hand notes of the piano and a clear melody in the right hand. It is based on an ancient Breton myth in which a cathedral, submerged underwater off the coast of the Island of Ys, rises up from the sea on clear mornings when the water is transparent. Debussy catches the shimmering water as well as the ghostly outlines of the building – and there are suggestions of plainchant too. Eventually a massive toll of bells is reached (35:38) There is some magical quiet playing when this music reappears at 38:26.

39:49 – La danse de Puck (Puck’s Dance) – pure impudence in this piece of music, darting about elusively and never sitting still anywhere. There are some cheeky melodies but also some brief and profound asides.

42:31 – Minstrels – another stop start piece, but one where the melody is very clearly defined. It is as though the performers are slightly drunk and moving from side to side! After several runs at getting a long-lasting theme, the piece ends crisply and emphatically at 44:52.

45:34 – L’isle joyeuse – this character piece starts with extended trills in the right hand, creating a watery atmosphere but also one with latent energy. By 47:26 the open-air mood has been set and we hear another distinctive melody at 47:32. From 49:44 the music takes on the character of a march, becoming faster and louder until a final joyous theme at 50:15. The piece ends on the lowest end of the piano at 50:56.


52:08 For an encore Pavel Kolesnikov goes back two centuries to give Debussy’s compatriot – and one of his greatest influences – Jean-Philippe Rameau. The piece in question is L’Egyptienne, from the Nouvelles suites de pièces de clavecin (New Suites of Harpsichord Pieces) Suite in G major.

Further listening

A natural next port of call for listening is the second book of the Préludes, for they follow on naturally from the first. On this album the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard plays both books:

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