Goldberg Variations: Pavel Kolesnikov and Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. Photo: Anne Van Aerschot (detail) View full image

Pavel Kolesnikov on Bach

As he collaborates on the world premiere of an interpretation of Bach's Goldberg Variations with dancer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, Pavel Kolesnikov explains why it's taken him so long to come to this masterpiece and what he's learnt from dance

About a year ago I received a request from Rosas, a famed Belgian dance company, asking whether I would be interested to work with Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. I was surprised because we've never met before and I've never worked with dance, but I got very curious about it. I went to meet Anne Teresa in Paris and there she asked me if I wanted to do the Goldberg Variations with her.

I have never played the Goldbergs – I rarely play any Bach on stage. There are reasons for this. I haven’t been certain in finding my way with Bach on a contemporary piano, so the proposition was difficult, even scary in a way. I started studying the work and seeing what it would entail, and little by little I realised that strangely enough, it might be an ideal entry point for me into the universe of Bach.

The project is inspiring in exactly the right way. I allowed myself to think completely outside the box, almost without references. I love this way of working, especially when the subject is very reference-heavy. There are problems performing any Baroque music on a contemporary instrument, and while some things may work remarkably well, sometimes it’s simply not possible to find a convincing solution. The problems lie, largely, in the character of sound itself, which affects everything – phrasing, articulation, tempo and character eventually. I have deliberately been working on a few different instruments, switching between them, in order to loosen up a little, to shake up my perception of sound of piano.

In the last few years, I’ve realised that for a contemporary keyboard player an organic way into Bach, paradoxically, may not be in orientating oneself towards the harpsichord. Instead, I tried to find the right way through Bach’s orchestral and particularly vocal repertoire. I’ve been listening to cantatas endlessly – it gives one a lot of joy anyway, but also a very different understanding of articulation and time.

With Bach, there are clichés that are difficult to get out of your head. To complicate matters, there are two different but very strong traditions of playing Bach on the piano: one is the romantic tradition and the other is the one stemming from Glenn Gould – who, with all his idiosyncrasy, positions himself somewhere between Romantic and Baroque idioms. His is a unique and powerful world, to which I was 'heavily exposed' as a child. My mother was in love with some of his recordings and I followed suit. Now, though, as much as I admire these outstanding recordings, I find Gould's approach lacking the vital balance between the willpower of the performer and resistance of material. I now think that with the music of Bach you cannot be iconoclastic and just start breaking things - it is great fun but somehow doesn't quite work in the end. You have to be careful and grow your interpretation organically.

Working with Anne Teresa has been magical – engrossing. It also offered me a new way of looking at Bach. She has managed to find a way of truly inhabiting his music without a trace of egotism, but also without the preconceptions that we classical musicians have. When we started working together I had to provide her with the most detailed, all-round analysis of the piece. To do that I had to dig deeper than perhaps I would have if I were working on a piece myself – in order to pass on knowledge you have to get it into your system first. That and the time – it took us a year and a half to finalise the piece – has become an incredible privilege and advantage on its own.

The set of Goldberg Variations is are the most challenging (and largest!) pieces ever written for a keyboard instrument. They force you to humble yourself. You have no choice but to work step by step and see what happens. You can't set yourself goals, because the piece is your master. You just keep going in a very humble way and try to do it as well as you can.

The Goldberg Variations on tour in 2021