Archive for June, 2017

Kirill Gerstein


Kirill Gerstein

As a lover of classical music, it is in my interest that more people attend live concerts, so that places like Symphony Center can afford to invite pianists like Kirill Gerstein to Chicago. That requires me to suppress my supercilious tendency to tut-tut under my breath when neophytes clap between movements, as many did when Pollini performed a couple of weeks ago to a packed auditorium. The irony, of course, is that neophytes have historical authenticity on  their side. Concertgoers regularly clapped between movements in Beethoven’s day, sometimes demanding encores before a piece was finished. This afternoon, Gerstein had a more select (i.e., smaller) audience, who never once violated modern protocols, which meant that an incongruous silence followed each of Liszt’s Transcendental Studies, even though they were all played with a dazzling bravura. To compensate for this collective, and increasingly bizarre, restraint, I had to give him an immediate standing ovation and even nearly shouted ‘bravo.’

Playing all of the Transcendental Studies in one go is a monumental achievement that few have attempted. This is the first live performance I have heard in nearly forty years. I saw Lazar Berman play them all in London’s Festival Hall, while keeping half an eye on Alfred Brendel in the opposite box following the score. I could see him nod approvingly during the final Chasse-neige. A lion amongst pianists, and the latest legend to emerge from the Soviet Union, Berman still needed a breather half-way through, abruptly leaving the stage for several minutes. Astonishingly, Gerstein barely seemed to break a sweat, even when galloping across the Steppes at break-neck speed in Mazeppa, somehow concealing the third arm that must surely have been playing the central thirds. The congested textures of Wilde Jagd were conveyed with rhythmic élan and the mischievous  double notes of  Feux Follets with apparently effortless facility. I had to remind myself how breathtaking his achievement was by looking at the score when I returned home.

Daniil Trifonov has been making waves with recent performances of the studies, and my recollection was that his recording was more probing than Gerstein’s, also released last year. For example, Gerstein seems too impatient to portray the contemplative vision of Paysage; he plays it a whole minute faster than Trifonov. However, a quick comparison of Gerstein’s recordings with today’s performance suggests either that his interpretation has evolved or that the recording studio made him a little more cautious. This afternoon, there seemed to be a more confident swagger in the faster passages and a greater lyrical freedom in the gentler music, especially Ricordanza (although Paysage was still too fast). Harmonies du Soir ended with a truly majestic climax, while the final Chasse-neige brought the concert to a powerful, if desolate, close.

The first half of the concert had contained a surprisingly robust, characterfully shaped, performance of Bach’s two-part Clavier-Übung, and an edgy performance of Brahms’ Second Piano Sonata, perhaps the least Brahmsian piece he wrote. This was a much wilder interpretation than Emmanuel Ax’s fluent but domesticated performance a couple of years ago, with a final movement that verged on the burlesque, making the stories that Brahms earned money as a teenager playing the piano in dance halls and brothels seem eminently plausible. As we know, he then grew a beard and became respectable. Gerstein has also grown a beard, making him seem a little less mischievous than the last time I saw him. Now, dressed in black suit and shirt, there is a hint of the Mephistophelean about him, perhaps appropriate for the supernatural demands of the Liszt that dominated this concert.




Read Full Post »