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Singular Double Achievments

New York
Le Poisson Rouge, 162 Bleecker Street
06/26/2011 -  
Johannes Brahms: Variations on a Theme of Paganini (Books I and II), opus 35
Franz Liszt: Sonata in B Minor
Oliver Knussen: Ophelia’s Last Dance (American premiere, complete edition)

Kirill Gerstein (Pianist)

K. Gerstein (© Courtesy of the artist)

Trotting on stage, without a pause or glance outward, Kirill Gerstein plunged into Brahms “Paganini” Variationsboth books!–, went through these most taxing etudes, lifted his hands and looked to the listeners as if to say, “Okay, what trick do you want next?”

Except this Mr. Gerstein, the Russian wunderkind with the strangest background, didn’t do the Brahms as a trick. Commencing to play them without a second through is equivalent to a soprano dashing in from offstage carrying a high C and continuing for the next 25 minutes with a florid cantilena. .

But Mr. Gerstein didn’t play these as showpieces. In fact, he gave the illusion that he had improvised the whole thing. Gypsy shmaltz, Viennese waltzes, nocturnes, cadenzas, were heaped one atop another, offering the natural, unaffected flow which evades more “mature” musicians.

And when he finished the Variations, Mr. Gerstein, tieless, comfortable, got up for a quick bow, sat on the piano stool again, lounged back, took the mike in his hands, and resembled not so much one of the great young pianists of our day, but a boozy lounge singer ready to sing a throaty lyric.

That he did not do. Instead, he explained that Brahms might have loved to play this in Le Poisson Rouge, since Brahms was an old cabaret-piano-thumber himself. Mr. Gerstein didn’t quite use that phrase, but he could have easily applied the phrase to himself. For as a serious piano player, Gerstein has a pair of personalities, both of them on show here.

One is that, as a jazz pianist, he originally came to America from Russia to study at the Berklee School in Boston. (In fact, he still combiners this love, and has commissioned a set of variations from jazz composer Brad Mehldau.)

The second is that, as a most earnest pianist, Mr. Gerstein was awarded the prestigious Gilmore Artist Award in 2010, with a career soaring even more highly that his appearances as soloist and accompanist before this. But, true to his iconoclastic personality, he took the Gilmore money, and immediately commissioned music from that distinguished eclectic British composer, Oliver Knussen, which he played last night.

That might have been taking a chance too many. Knussen can be an awfully entertaining and fluent composer, but Ophelia’s Last Dance (originally ten minutes but now almost twice that long) does wander on a bit, as though Knussen had thrown in some waltzes, a few whole-tone scales, a bit of Scriabin harmony, great chalalenges, with feelings from the nostalgic and mournful, to the light-hearted . Somewhere, though, Knussen’s fluency overrode his proposed effects. Light-hearted it might have been, but it was also cold, distant, more an in rumination than a full-fledged piece.

Mr. Gerstein, though, is hardly a cold player. We cannot speak of his pheromonal technique, which is simply accepted. While everything seems simple to him, his care was evident in his scrupulous voices, even in the most complex sounds. One never forgot the Paganini caprice in the Brahms, or the skipping lyric melodies in the Knussen.

And in Liszt’s B Minor Sonata, Mr. Gerstein showed again how absolutely singular he is. The piece was thunderous enough, and on the surface Mr. Gerstein could pound Russian style with little effort. But this was a Liszt which drew one in not through the great Lisztian chords, But because Mr. Gerstein played phrases with lucidity, care, and, in the “heavenly” sections, with the most radiant luminosity.

We have all heard the Liszt Sonata as if the composer was offering the hugest emotional and Romantic period tapestry. But Franz Liszt was a student of literature, and this work was a musical equivalent to the most intense thoughts.

This was how Kirill Gerstein played the work. It was, within that cabaret interior, a thrilling experience. He takes the Tchaikovsky Concerto this week with the New York Philharmonic, and one can only hope–and suspect–that he will give this old warhorse both human breath and artistic breadth.

Harry Rolnifck



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