CD review: Kirill Gerstein, piano

Photo: Marco Borggreve

Photo: Marco Borggreve

Pianist Kirill Gerstein: Understanding and depth trumps gimmicks and eccentricities

The 2010 Gilmore Artist Award winner’s new CD of Schumann, Liszt and Oliver Knussen reveals a brand of virtuosity that focuses upon the composer, not the performer

By Kevin Moore

The Gilmore Artist Award is one of the most lucrative and prestigious in the world of music. Provided by the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival, it involves a $300,000 grant to a pianist chosen through a non-competitive process. The Gilmore’s six-member Advisory Committee nominates and considers a pianist, of any age, whom they consider to be deserving of support. Members of the committee attend concerts during the nominee’s regular concert season without telling the pianist he/she is being considered for the award. As a result, those chosen are heard in a natural surrounding doing what they normally do in their concerts.

The premise is a wonderful one. It seems these days as if there is a piano competition on every street corner. And competitions generally do not foster the values that are most crucial in the development of a young musician’s musical maturity and understanding, let alone breadth of repertoire. Some prominent teachers believe that the competition environment provides invaluable performing experience, often under stressful circumstances –– something that’s in common with real-life concerts. However, I remain convinced that the repertoire that wins competitions is a very narrow swath of an otherwise gloriously rich trove of great music. For example, one does not win the Van Cliburn Competition playing a Schubert Sonata, even if you are the next Schnabel. And what’s the advantage of playing in a stressful environment other than to develop an overheated, pushy, virtuosic style of playing? Calm, thoughtful and deeply considered playing is not very common at most competitions.

Sadly, winning a major competition may be the only way for a young pianist to get the attention of conductors, managers and record companies. And many major competitions provide orchestral engagements across the country for the winner. Of course, the orchestras benefit from that arrangement: They get a certified “winner” who, depending on the prestige of the competition, may well fill the hall. They also get a soloist at a much reduced fee compared to established artists with professional management. And for some reason the public thinks they are hearing the very best musicians. Usually they’re not. They’re hearing young, inexperienced, often immature musicians who gravitate to what one Gramophone critic calls “the gladiatorial style of piano playing.” This seems to be what wins competitions.

All of this makes the existence of the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival’s annual Artist Award a brilliant and refreshing development. The founder of that organization decided to support musicians who exhibit special qualities of mature musicianship and pianism that are often inimical to the usual competitive process. To judge by the most recent winner, as well as several previous ones, this has worked out well. And that’s very good for the world of music.

The sixth winner of the Gilmore Artist Award is Kirill Gerstein, chosen in 2010. He was born in Russia in 1979 and came to the United States in 1993, initially to study jazz at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He soon ended up at The Manhattan School of Music for serious study of classical piano, where he received Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees.

Although Gerstein has made several chamber music recordings, his first solo piano CD was released at the end of 2010 by Myrios Classics. It contains the Humoresque, op.20 by Robert Schumann, the Sonata in B minor by Franz Liszt and a new work by British composer Oliver Knussen, which was commissioned by the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival for Gerstein to play. It is entitled Ophelia’s Last Waltz.

The entire album demonstrates scrupulous and impeccable musicianship and playing of absolute integrity. There are no gimmicks or eccentricities to shift the focus onto the player rather than the music. This is a serious and wonderful musician.

The Humoresque of Schumann is a difficult work to get across to the listener. It’s a large scale work, about 30 minutes in length, built in 5 sections –– all connected and forming a continuous whole. Gerstein obviously is very close to this work and holds it together remarkably well. The opening is quite delicate and fluent and throughout he seems more interested in the long line than momentary distractions. It features excellent articulation and rhythmic clarity. He has a consistently warm and beautiful tone, allied with an impetuous and passionate delivery that colors the piece wonderfully.

Ophelia’s Last Waltz by Oliver Knussen, placed here between the Schumann and Liszt works, is quite an attractive and emotional piece. About 10 minutes long, it is based on a theme Knussen initially wrote for a symphony in the 1970s but ultimately did not use in that work. He took it up again in 2004 following the death of his wife, Sue Knussen. The predominant mood is a touching and emotional nostalgia, associated mainly with the waltz theme itself. It is vaguely tonal with occasional whole-tone touches and hinting at late-Scriabin, Ravel and Bartok (in his “night music” mood). There are delicate accompanying clusters near the end and Gerstein creates an engaging effect in this excellent work.

The Sonata in B minor by Franz Liszt is one of the greatest piano works of the 19th century. Richard Wagner, in a letter to Liszt, wrote “My dearest Franz! You too were in the room with me! The Sonata is beautiful beyond belief; great, lovable, deep, and noble- as sublime as you yourself.” And quite Wagnerian it is. Of course, to be historically accurate I might better say that Wagner’s music is quite Lisztian. The Sonata is dedicated to Robert Schumann, evidently in return for the dedication to Liszt of Schumann’s great Fantasie in C major almost 20 years earlier.

The familiarity of this piece makes it easy to forget how important, revolutionary and influential a work it was. A complete sonata in one movement, it can be analyzed either as a first-movement classical sonata movement, or as a multi-movement sonata played without break. Liszt’s technique of thematic transformation ties this 30-minute work tightly together. It’s the same idea used throughout his 13 symphonic poems
–– another form which he originated. And all of it was quite likely inspired by Liszt’s admiration for the Wanderer Fantasy in C major of Franz Schubert, a work he arranged for piano and orchestra and had played many times. It has many features in common with Liszt’s Sonata, including common thematic material in all four movements and a continuous 15-minute form with no pauses between movements.

Unfortunately, it has become the fashion to turn this great and noble work into an opportunity for virtuoso display. The B Minor Sonata can have an overwhelming effect on an audience, but is greatest when taken seriously on its own terms. Gerstein approaches every detail in Liszt’s score as seriously as he would Beethoven or Bach –– a rare quality in today’s world of traveling virtuosos. As a result it’s a performance of rare integrity. It is brilliant, polished, beautifully controlled and with a liquid legato and solid tone everywhere. It is admirable in every respect and supremely musical. Nothing is overdone, yet Liszt’s ideas come out quite clearly.

This great work has images of heaven and hell, life and death, good and evil that are worthy of Dante’s Divine Comedy, a book which Liszt knew well and could quote at length. The mysterious heartbeats that begin the piece set the stage for what seems a lifetime of experience. Appropriately, it ends in the same quiet place. If Gerstein’s performance doesn’t quite have the profound understanding and depth found in accounts by Arrau, Gilels, or Brendel, I’m content to believe he’ll get there in time. This recording is indeed impressive and supremely musical. I’m interested to hear more.

Details Box:
: CD review: Kirill Gerstein, piano
What: Schumann Humoresque, op.20, Knussen Ophelia’s Last Dance, op. 32, Liszt Sonata in B minor
Labels: Myrios Classics CD, MYR 005
Release date: November, 2010