Ragged School’s classy piano man

Mesmerising Russian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov launches a series of intimate concerts at a Victorian school museum in the East End

Thursday, 12th September 2019 — By Michael White


Pavel Kolesnikov

“I wouldn’t say it was a venue”, says Pavel Kolesnikov about the site where he’s about to launch potentially the most intriguing small-scale concert series in the capital. “I’d call it a place. Very informal, simple, honest, but with a history that leaves a strong impression. And what we do there will feel like a pop-up event – a sort of trial to see if it works.”

The place in question is the little-known but atmospherically alluring old Victorian Ragged School by Mile End Park. And its revised existence as a concert space begins this weekend (September 13-15) with a run of three performances in what was once a classroom but will now host some of London’s (and the world’s) best young musicians. Starting with Kolesnikov himself.

If you’ve not heard him, take it from me – he’s special. In a universe where pianists tend to sound the same, he doesn’t. Almost no one I can think of, young or old, can mesmerise an audience as he can. And he does it without histrionics or vulgarity or heavy-hitting: quite the opposite, he’s close to introverted in his manner, but with an intensity and presence that’s provocative. Not everybody likes it, but for those who do, it’s utterly compelling.

Born in 1989 in Novosibirsk, a bleakly modernistic Soviet city in Siberia that nonetheless has a good musical life, he studied at more or less the same time in Moscow, Brussels and London – commuting between all three and getting seriously conflicting advice from different teaching traditions, which he now considers “madness, maybe, but the best thing. There was no choice but to evaluate, to decide what you yourself think, and then come up with your own ideas.”

As a result, Kolesnikov turned into an ideas-driven performer. Somebody who thinks. And deeply.

In 2012 he won the world’s most valuable piano prize, the $100,000 that goes with first place at the Honens Competition, Canada. In the same year he became a BBC New Generation Artist. And then he issued a CD of baroque music by Louis Couperin, played in a way that the flame-keepers of historically informed performance were unlikely to approve but probing so deep into the inner life of this music that you can only hold your breath as it unfolds.

Now, at the age of 30, he stands on the threshold of greatness. But he lives inconspicuously in NW6 with his partner Samson Tsoy, another Russian pianist. And the Ragged School project features them on stage together – except there won’t be much of a stage because, as Kolesnikov says, it’s informal and the room won’t hold more than 100.

Friday night (September 13) at 7.30pm has Kolesnikov with his own trio playing Beethoven and Brahms. Saturday (September 14) at 7.30pm is just Kolesnikov and Tsoy in Brahms, Chopin, Debussy. And Sunday (September 15) at 5pm has Tsoy with the Albion Quartet in Mozart, Ravel and Shostakovich.

If you want a recommendation I’d say go to whatever you can get a ticket for, and be in on the start of this very promising venture.

• Ragged Music Festival, September 13-15, Ragged School, Copperfield Road, E3 4RR. Tickets £49.10, book at raggedschoolmuseum.org.uk

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