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In search of Proust

Pavel Kolesnikov performs a recital inspired by the works of Marcel Proust at Wigmore Hall on 3 February, juxtaposing Schubert’s Fantasy Sonata in G, D894, with works by Couperin, Hahn, Franck and Fauré. Here he explains how – and why – he created the programme

The Schubert Fantasy Sonata is one of my favourite pieces, but I could never understand how one could convincingly put it on a programme. As elusive as it is monumental, it requires tremendous concentration from both performer and listener. Does one begin a recital with it or finish? Neither option ever seemed possible to me.

I came up with the idea of trying to create a special atmosphere for it, a context, to explore its complex emotions through different pieces. I started thinking about what this sonata means to me and realised it was a perfect Proustian piece. I wasn’t particularly concerned with the historical reconstruction of Proust's exact musical preferences – it seemed to me more interesting to delve into his very particular way of hearing and feeling music. What would he get out of it? I started building a programme inspired by the Proustian salon – very vain, but also incredibly elevated.

However, I still couldn’t understand how the G major sonata fitted. Then, one day I was doing something in the house and realised what I had to do. The solution was to split the sonata. That way it would start the programme, with its first movement, and also finish it, with the remaining movements. The middle of the recital is taken up by that never-ending Proustian sentence, a stream of consciousness composed of a myriad of smaller pieces by French composers who were Proust's favourites (or with Louis Couperin, might have been). There are many exquisite pieces that are also very little known, while the section is crowned by one of the greatest masterpieces of French music, Franck's Prelude, Choral et Fuge.

This solution is paradoxical and quite a few people have raised their eyebrows, but for me as a performer, this is the only convincing way to deal with this mysterious sonata, and it has taken me many years to come up with it. I feel it might aid the listeners understand and explore it more deeply. There is also something poetic about abandoning this piece half way and going on a tangent, in order to come back to it more fully.

I am struck by the beginning of the Schubert. It gives me pleasure just to imagine how the first chord is going to order space and time as soon as I put my fingers on the keyboard. There’s nothing happening there: it feels as if it digs into one moment and stretches it out infinitely, and this is so much in line with Proust’s understanding of the world. It’s fascinating that as different a personality as Schubert was to Proust, they align so serendipitously in their magical pieces.

Pavel Kolesnikov performs In Memory of Proust at Wigmore Hall on 3 February, with the concert live streamed from 8pm GMT.


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