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Archive for May, 2012

Kirill Gerstein

kirill-gerstein

Kirill Gerstein

Normal service resumed at Chicago’s Symphony Center a couple of weeks ago. A talented pianist played music that he loved with affection and warmth. As regular readers will know, this is usually, but sadly not always, the case. The pianist was Kirill Gerstein, a Russian that I had only heard once before playing Rachmaninov’s second concerto, also here in Chicago under the watchful eye of Charles Dutoit. It all seemed effortless then, as you would expect from someone who had won the Arthur Rubinstein Prize a decade ago, a fairly prestigious prize in the same league as the Leeds or Chopin prizes (the first ever winner was Emmanuel Ax in 1975). But I find it difficult to judge the quality of pianists from concerto performances alone – a solo recital is so much more revealing of their true musicality – so I was intrigued to hear him again.

He was tall and elegantly dressed in dark suit and open-necked shirt. I thought he gave the audience a somewhat sardonic smile when acknowledging the applause, giving him the look of a slightly balding Ashton Kutcher (although my daughter thinks that’s an oxymoron). Certainly the program looked like a lot of fun, with plenty of dance music and even some genuine, if notated, jazz. It was certainly not the kind of program I could imagine being played by the pianist he replaced, an indisposed Maurizio Pollini, but I wasn’t going to complain.

To be frank, the opening music was a disappointment. He played one of Bach’s English Suites, which is also full of dance, not that you could tell. He had a habit of continually pulling at the music rhythmically this way and that, with little variety of touch, making it all sound earnest and rather dreary. The one exception was the Gavotte, whose central section was played with a delightful intimacy, sounding rather like the music box variation in Brahm’s Handel Variations. However, he redeemed himself with a sprightly account of Busoni’s short An die Jugend, full of the deftest polyphony. He continued in the same vein with the Soirées de Vienna, a delightful confection made up of Schubert waltzes, whisked up by Liszt with just a sprinkling of virtuosity, and finishing with Weber’s Invitation to the Dance.

In the second half, he played the Variations on a Melancholy Theme by Brad Mehldau, a jazz musician who was commissioned to compose the music by Gerstein himself. It is a substantial piece, with dense complex harmonies whose jazz idiom is fully integrated into a classical structure. It is a more genuine fusion of jazz and classical styles than the music of, for example, Nikolai Kapustin, who wrote jazz-inspired music of sizzling virtuosity that often sounds like a cocktail bar pianist on steroids. This seems more in the serious tradition of Gershwin and Duke Ellington, but written in a post-Messiaenic age. Music to listen to again some time.

Gerstein ended with what must have been the party of the century, at least the 19th century, in Schumann’s Carnaval. After all, where else could you have heard Chopin and Paganini playing within a few minutes of each other? When he wasn’t pining for Clara, Schumann knew how to have a good time and I could almost imagine Gerstein as Kutcher dashing from one ballroom to another, his CoolPix in hand, waiting to catch someone unawares in an embarrassing pose. I think he missed one of the best jokes in the music, when a rather sleepy café band is rudely interrupted by Paganini throwing off a whirlwind of double-stops before resuming its lazy waltz as if nothing had happened. In Gerstein’s hands, the band sounded a bit too professional. Still, he finished with a bang, sizzle and pop, the final march accelerated to dizzying speeds, bringing everyone to their feet. He continued making our feet tap with Earl Wild’s version of Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm as an encore, all in all a welcome tonic after the narcissistic excess of the last recital I had attended.

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