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Taking the Fear From Fearful Symmetries

New York
92nd Stree Y, Theresa L. Kaufmann Concert Hall
04/06/2016 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonatas No. 13 in E-flat, Opus 27, No. 1 (“Sonata quasi una fantasia”), & No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Opus 27, No. 2 (“Sonata quasi una fantasia”) (“Moonlight”)
Alexander Goehr: Variations (Homage to Haydn), Opus 93
Franz Liszt: After a reading of Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata – Sonata in B minor, S. 178

Kirill Gerstein (Pianist)

K. Gerstein (© www.kgerstein.com)

The proportion of Kirill Gerstein’s choices last night were mathematically symmetrical. His performance was equally in harmony, though balances, thankfully were more human than mathematical.

He started with Beethoven’s early “Sonata quasi una fantasia”, continued with a Liszt “Fantasia quasi sonata.” Next was another “Sonata quasi una fantasia”, and finally was Liszt with a sonata which was most certainly a fantasy.

Add to this, the Beethovens were Early Romantic, the Liszts Middle Romantic. And the one “modern” piece combined Haydn’s 18th Century Viennese with Vienna 20th Century.

That, in William Blake’s words, is a fearful symmetry. Though Mr. Gerstein is much too adept a pianist to make anything fearful or even forbidding.

Perhaps it was Mr. Gerstein’s love of jazz and study at Berklee to turn him from Russian storminess to a more fluid un-extreme way of playing. He didn’t tackle the early 13th Sonata of Beethoven. He played the first two movements with a simple uncomplicated, even “square” playing. The first two movements hardly move out of the box, and Mr. Gerstein’s performance was staid, even slightly dull.

Anybody with his incredible technique would be like a horse champing at the bit, anxious to run with the final Allegro vivace, but he took his time. When let loose with the crazy change of Adagio to Vivace, he let his fingers do the work.

As to the second part of Opus 27, the “Moonlight” Sonata is the “To be or not to be” of piano music. How different can any artist make those triplets without affectation? Mr. Gerstein’s sense of control took over, a movement with nuances of shades and glows. One can’t change night to day, and this was, as his publisher said, nocturnal music.

Mr. Gerstein was happily let loose on the two Liszt pieces. The Dante Sonata is one of the greatest of all “literary” pieces, and Mr. Gerstein saw Franz Liszt more the academic than the flame.

No, he didn’t compress the 25-minute work into the Divine Comedy. But within those wild harmonies, those tritones both savage and remote, Mr. Gerstein traveled through those forests of notes, giving heed to the infamies of the Inferno, the paeans of Paradise. Next to the Beethoven, Gerstein’s showed Romantic fervor, yet without the fever of his Russian contemporaries.

As for the B Minor Sonata, we again had Liszt at his ultimate finest, and Mr. Gerstein performed with a muscular, if never out-of-hand fluidity. One must remember that the pianist, now an American citizen, is still a lover of jazz, and in the most difficult passages, one had the feeling this was not music of a Hungarian genius, but fingerings of Art Tatum or Oscar Petersen. Still, Mr. Gerstein was ready for those great finales, the fugue (so transparent here) and the dismal ending.

Since all these works were well known, I was charmed (if that be the word) by Alexander Goehr’s Variations. Son of a momentous conductor, Walter Goehr, was never intimidated, and his studies with Messiaen, as well as the dodecaphonists make him a most deft eclectic composer.

Here, he took the first two notes from Haydn’s Andante con variazioni, using them in permutations for a quartet of variations 2012 style.

But now came the paradox. The work only sounded atonal. More interesting indeed was how Goehr interwove not Haydn themes, but Haydn’s musical signs within this prickly and captivating piece. Here amidst the jungle of tones, we had little grace notes, Haydn-style runs up the piano, those first-notes F and A-flat never confined yet showing their music if listening carefully.

And so beautifully was this written, how clearly it was played (Goehr had dedicated it to Mr. Gerstein) that its harmonic mysteries were actually joyous little tricks.

And now the ending of the recital. Mr. Gerstein is hardly averse to giving encores, and I have heard him finish with three or four Chopins, Gershwins and his own jazz arrangements. After the final note of the Liszt B Minor Sonata, the audience clamored for more, more more.

The pianist obviously enjoyed the plaudits. But he knew that you can’t follow Liszt with a sweet encore, any more than you can follow Beluga caviar with a Three Musketeers bar. He politely thanked them, then withdrew.

Mr. Gerstein, even when the situation demands drama, is still the most artistic artist.

Harry Rolnick



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