To know an artist, forget studio recordings. Get the 'live' experience. In concert Kirill Gerstein – Soviet-born, American naturalised, German-based – is a very different personality from the “inside the instrument” one you'll find on his recent release of Liszt's Transcendental Studies. Anticipating a barnstorming, clangourous, percussive close shave, all glitter and plated virtuosity, we got instead an evening of high culture, thoughtful musicality, and exceptional pianism. His touch was beautifully graded, the biggest shoulder-weight chords possessed depth and sonority, warm more than clinical, his command of texture and pedalling confirmed insightful authority.
From the first of Bach's Duettos, published in 1739, his priorities were clear: shaped, curved phrasing, limpid articulation (speaking as much as inventing the notes), rhythmic fluidity, analysis at the service of the composer.
Camera at the ready, Book I of Debussy's Préludes looked to the cinematic. Gerstein terraced the trajectory of these pieces with exactitude and poetry, his voicing at all levels generating a plethora of scenes, moods and people. Here was a world ranging from the fantastical to fairyland, memories to minstrels. Scurrying leaves, winter dusks, Atlantic storms gathering in ferocity. 'The Girl with the Flaxen Hair' proved quite a cheery Nordic lass, more Firbolg than Celt, a robust exterior (calling a spade a spade) melting by the end into something softer if still reluctant to yield. “I'm here but I'm not yours”, the final split octaves seemed to say. The organum of 'The Submerged Cathedral' was big, the approaching and receding tide painted for an eternity, the whiteness of C-major and C1 fundamentals – from tombs to Romanesque arches – a circling point.
Such images, to a lesser degree, pervaded the three Chopin waltzes, not least the horn-calls and princesses of Opus 42. The E-minor, so often castrated in the schoolroom, defined elegance, a performance glowing in nuance and secondary detail. Defying anything urbane Parisian or Viennese society would have been used to – so utterly remote from Jullien or Johann Strauss père – the modernity and demand, the caprice, of these vignettes came across freshly minted, without sentimental accretion.
Thomas Adès's three Mazurkas (2009) were written for Emanuel Ax to commemorate the bicentenary of Chopin's birth. They lie brilliantly for the instrument, defining, distilling, distorting and dramatising the genre through perspicacious modern sensibility. Chopin may be the starting point (Szymanowski too I sense) but at the finish it's Adès's distinctively sure-footed style and individuality – disarming, daunting, playful, precise – which carries the day. Most arresting is the second – a mercurial "play this" (Adès) Prestissimo study in ornamentation (a dazzle of mordents), rubato and metric conflict, the score helpfully incorporating an additional clarifying stave marked “hear this”. Offsetting its pedalled high tessitura spring-blossom and shattered-glass cosmos, the third is a slow allusory fragmentation spanning the registers, its outer sections based on a low-vaulted twelve-note 'ground' (C-sharp, G-sharp, B, B-flat, A, C, G, D, F, E, E-flat, F-sharp) harmonised at the fifth variously displaced. Gerstein, imaginative and disciplined, made the utmost of its maestoso gravity, achieving a cantabile connection and mystery arguably missing from Adès's own more angular, more urgent Warner recording (powerfully compelling though that undeniably is).
Brahms's youthful Second Sonata (replacing Schumann's originally advertised F-minor, Opus 14) was crowded with incident and sub-texts, Gerstein reinforcing the audacity of its best bits. If the Finale didn't come off, didn't quite hang together, it wasn't his fault. What struck home most was Brahms's independence. Moving on from the foursquare thrust of his Beethovenian Opus 1, here, in 1852, we have a nineteen year-old trying out new directions. Many facets lurk within these walls – sonata, ballade, fantasia, tone-poem, legend. Some fuse, others fracture. Gerstein set off boldly, gilding his double-octaves with a (softer) Germanic rather than (harder) Lisztian stridency. He lovingly framed the lyricism of the Minnesinger Andante. He rose to enriching heights in the Trio of the Scherzo, balancing the harmonic changes to perfection.
Two moments, both cadential, sent shivers. The pair of piano una corda chords closing the first movement. And the misty, barely moonlit final page of the Finale – a smoky scena of ppp trills and spectral runs, 'speaking' yet on the verge of inaudibility. Rarely has Brahms hovering between the F-sharp mysticism of Beethoven/Chopin/Liszt and the 'blue' beckoning of Scriabin been more finely captured.