Great Performers: Kirill Gerstein

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Published: 7th June, 2019

Making his Melbourne Recital Centre debut on a cold Monday night, Russian-American pianist Kirill Gerstein was in no need of a warm-up. Liszt’s heroic Transcendental Etude No.7 in E flat major, Eroica was the curtain raiser to a program promising no less than nine works by seven composers. With themes of heroism, war and revolt woven throughout the recital, Gerstein began boldly, immediately revealing an impressive technical command of the instrument. Double Octave passages, notoriously fiendish in Liszt, were played as the score decrees: “con bravura”. Most satisfying was the apparent ease with which Gerstein produced rich orchestral sonorities, the virtuosic moments erring on the side of finesse rather than barnstorming recklessness. Playing on the new Steinway in Elisabeth Murdoch hall, Gerstein’s opening work, thanks to Liszt, showed off the full glorious range of the piano.

Sharing the “heroic” key of E-flat major, as well as the Eroica tag, was the second piece of the evening, Beethoven’s Variations & Fugue Op. 35. Gerstein did not break between the triumphant final chords of the Liszt and the opening theme of the Beethoven. The variations were imbued with both rhetoric and humour, but existed more on their own rather than as a cohesive whole leading into the fugue. After meandering through 15 variations, Gerstein came to life, as if ignited by Prometheus (a character close to Beethoven’s heart) during the final fugue. With a stronger sense of purpose, underpinned by outstanding precision and clarity, Gerstein led the audience to an exciting finish.

A short offstage break followed. This allowed for the shift in mood that was to come with the closing work of the first half, Leos Janacek’s Piano Sonata From the Street. This two-movement work was composed following Janacek’s outrage at the death of a young labourer, Frantisek Pavlik, during a political protest on the streets of Brno in 1905.

The lyrical introduction to the first movement, in E-flat minor, was sensitively played, although the speech-inspired rhythmic outbursts failed to interrupt the established mood with the necessary flashes of anger appropriate to the narrative. Further into the movement, Gerstein’s incredible technique was once again on display. Assisted by his very large hands, Gerstein negotiated Janacek’s awkward pianistic writing with ease.

Liszt was again the choice to open after interval, Gerstein delivering a powerfully evocative reading of Funérailles. It was at this point in the recital that Gerstein’s skill in programming came to the fore, with a reassuring linkage to what had come before. Remarkably also, a sense of unity emerged from this on-paper seemingly obscure, eclectic mix of repertoire.

Several small pieces followed, led by an Australian premiere of an extraordinary piece written for Gerstein by Thomas Ades, adapted from his opera The Exterminating Angel. Continuing the sombre mood were two short Debussy works, including the Elegie L.138.

Gerstein broke out of the heavy mood with two folk dances written by little-known Armenian composer Komitas Vardapet. Whilst he wrote these pieces in tragic circumstances (he was imprisoned during the Armenian genocide and suffered severe mental health problems as a result), they provided a welcome lightness with their folk-infused rhythms and graceful delicacy. The audience let out an appreciative sigh after Gerstein’s most beautiful, delicate playing yet.

Concluding the program was a spirited reading of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin. With dazzling tempi and a suitably impressionistic colour palette, the overall sweep of the six-movement work was convincingly achieved. With two big name composers not on the program, Gerstein’s two encores, Bach and Chopin, filled in the gaps, concluding what was a fascinatingly satisfying concert.

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Jane Ferdinands reviewed Kirill Gerstein’s Great Performers series concert given at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on June 3, 2019.