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The Notes of Joy

New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
01/18/2024 -  
Frédéric Chopin: Polonaise-Fantaisie in A‑flat Major, Opus 61 – Fantasy in F Minor, Opus 49 – Waltz in A‑Flat Major, Opus 42
Gabriel Fauré: Nocturne No. 13 in B Minor, Opus 119
Francis Poulenc: Three Intermezzi
Franz Liszt: Polonaise No. 2 in E Major
Robert Schumann Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Opus 26
Fritz Kreisler: Old Viennese Dances: 2. “Liebesleid” (Transcribed by Sergei Rachmaninoff)

Kirill Gerstein (Pianist)

K. Gerstein

There is neither rhythm nor melody in French music. I deduce the French have no music and cannot have any music. And if they must have, more’s the pity on them.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau

I’ve run out of fingers.
Franz Liszt, attempting to play a work by Gabriel Fauré

Kirill Gerstein’s recital started at 7.30 pm last night, and finished five minutes later.

Or so it seemed.

Part of it was his repertoire. Two suave short French works. Two Chopin fantasies, and one exuberant Liszt polonaise. That old Viennese dance by Fritz Kreisler. Not a single heavy ponderous 19th Century German piece the whole evening. 

Of, of course there was Robert Schumann. This, though, wasn’t hoch deutsch at all. It was Schumann’s homage to a Viennese carnival. Hardly to be compared to Hammerklavier. Though, oh, I would have been mesmerized if he’d played the complete Liszt Transcendental Etudes, as he did several years ago.

The second reason the recital seemed to last five minutes is that Kirill Gerstein’s fingers were as light as his choices. Was that due to his jazz studies at Berklee? One doubts it. His deftness, his near insouciance in tackling the most challenging music has to be instinctual. For yes, I’ve heard him play some powerful Liszt, including a majestic B Minor Sonata. But last night was a paean to essentially cheerful sounds.

Mr. Gerstein’s fingers are god (or Zeus- or Thor-) given. No matter the notes, he manages to be both lyrical and gentle. Like Emanuel Ax, one feels a mighty muscular strength kept in check. In Liszt’s unique Polonaise, he could balance a Rhapsody-style drum tatoo in the left hand while swinging down the keyboard, changing keys with the right.

Other pianists might emphasize these notes. Mr. Gerstein never overplayed, never showed himself the master of the composer, but let the notes unravel themselves.

This was shown best in the Schumann Vienna Joke (or Vienna Carnival. My Google translator shows Faschingschwank as Carnival Swing, the composer’s homage to Benny Goodman.) Here was a combination of enthusiasm and sensitivity, an enchanting opening waltz giving way to rapid‑fire fingering in the last movement.

Mr. Gerstein could have played it with suave understatement, but he left that for the preceding Fauré. Instead, he started with zest, was unafraid of rubatos, gave Schumann’s sudden shifts of mood not mania, but again allowing the surprising modulation to catch us in surprise. Perhaps such confidence subtracted from the gloom of the second movement, but by the time he came to the finale with its triumphant octaves and arpeggios, it was obvious Mr. Gerstein was enjoying the Viennese dancing as we did.

(And just to add to the animation, he played Kreisler’s Liebesleid, another Viennese terpsichorean inspiration, with gusto.)

I mentioned the Fauré above, and I suppose the pianist played the 13th Nocturne with all the rarefied gravity it deserved. Fauré is such a refined composer, an artist of such noble class, that his “notes” could be compared to the notes of a vintage Châteauneuf-du-Pape, so fine that one sip must be savored. For a Vodka vulgarian like myself, two or three sips is sufficient.

His other French composer, Francis Poulenc, provided three delicious bagatelles. And the opening, which could easily be compared to a Prokofiev toccata, he dashed over the keyboard with piston-like precision.

His opening Chopin Polonaise-Fantasy was played with solid stolidity. It was moody, a bit hesitant, lacking that undercurrent of emotion in the final waltz. The great gift for the concert, though, was a Polonaise by none other than Franz Liszt. Yes, it was an homage, a flattering and somewhat eccentric remembrance of Chopin, who had died two years before. It was also new to this listener, Yes, the rhythms were polonais‑ish. But no, Liszt couldn’t resist some incredibly difficult passages, as if to say, “Fréd, you were pretty damned good. But this is piano playing.”

Unhappily, New York audiences, accustomed to bravura pianistics, were only modestly avid for Mr. Gerstein’s playing. Honesty, verisimilitude and unshakeable technique aren’t quite enough these days. Mr. Gerstein, one feels, was comfortable in his own skin. And so were the more cognizant members in the audience.

Harry Rolnick



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