Kirill Gerstein at Queen Elizabeth Hall – Mehldau, Brahms, Haydn, Schumann

Brad Mehldau
Variations on a Melancholy Theme [UK premiere]
Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Op.35
Variations in F minor, Hob.XVII:6
Carnaval, Op.9

Kirill Gerstein (piano)

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 4 April, 2013
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Kirill Gerstein. photo: © Marco BorggreveBrad Mehldau’s programme note for his Variations on a Melancholy Theme, written for Kirill Gerstein, makes reference to the binary form echoing that of the Goldberg and Diabelli sets (by J. S. Bach and Beethoven respectively) whilst sensibly denying any comparison with those great works. The attraction for a musician such as Mehldau of a form where each section is repeated lies in the way in jazz nothing is ever repeated verbatim but constantly varied through improvisation. Unusually amongst classical pianists, Gerstein has a parallel interest in jazz (as did Friedrich Gulda) so the idiom comes naturally to him, although he did use a tablet, more one suspects as an aide-memoire. This was hardly surprising since, after a promising start, the piece did rather tend to meander and would have repaid being two-thirds its eventual length. What was never in doubt was the finely-etched quality of the performance, important since some of the writing makes considerable demands.

Rather more engaging in this International Piano Series recital was Gerstein’s subtle take on both Books of Brahms’s Paganini Variations, frequently treated as an assault course. Gerstein brought a welcome lightness to many of the sections, teasing out their inner parts, taking them by stealth and moving us away from the thunderous Brahms of the F minor Piano Sonata (Opus 5). Especially memorable was the confiding quality of the gentler Variations (such as XII in Book I, marked molto dolce and pp on the repeat) or IV in Book II, which evoked the grazioso world of the Liebeslieder-Walzer. That said, Gerstein was fully up to the Feroce energico of Variation X in the same book and the drama of the final sprint to the finishing line.

Haydn’s F minor Variations is a remarkable work, constantly oscillating between darkness and F major light. Haydn subtitled it “Un piccolo divertimento” which is about as near the mark as Brahms referring to the scherzo of his Fourth Symphony. Haydn’s Variations inhabit the same world as the Sturm und Drang symphonies and some of its final chromatic modulations are as tortured as Pontormo’s Mannerist paintings. Gerstein gave it the intensely focussed concentration which marked Richter’s playing of Haydn, lean, under-pedalled and all the more affecting for a certain dry-eyed take-it-or-leave-it quality.

Liszt, an early champion of the work, said that Schumann’s Carnaval would find its true place alongside the Diabelli Variations. Carnaval’s succession of character pieces found Gerstein fully engaged, distilling the essence of each of the Scènes mignonnes (as Schumann described them), not overplaying ‘Pierrot’ and ‘Arlequin’ (which are sometimes hammed up), elegant in ‘Valse noble’ and subtly transmogrifying ‘Chopin’ so that it contrived to sound like Schumann as well as being Chopinesque. Unusually, Gerstein played ‘Sphinxes’, which is sometimes omitted and made sense since it introduced a brief pause before ‘Papillons’ and the lead up to the work’s rampant climax. There was an encore – Rachmaninov’s ‘Mélodie’ (from Morceaux de fantaisie, Opus 3) – hardly the composer at his most characteristic but appropriate nonetheless given that April 1 was Rachmaninov’s birthday.

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