Kirill Gerstein at Queen Elizabeth Hall

English Suite in A minor, BWV807
Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op.42
Fantasy in F minor, Op.49
Drei Klavierstücke, Op.11
Sonatina seconda
Mephisto Waltz No.1

Kirill Gerstein (piano)

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 31 March, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Kirill Gerstein. Photograph: Sasha GusovWinner of the Artur Rubinstein Piano Competition 2001, as yet Kirill Gerstein may not be a household name (although he has now played with many of the world’s leading orchestras) but on the evidence of this demanding recital he certainly deserves to be. Already 30, he is the antithesis of the young klaviertiger and – although prodigiously technically endowed – is a player of patrician finesse and the most fastidious intelligence.

To programme Rachmaninov’s Corelli Variations and Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz, two of the most demanding works in the piano repertoire, leavened by Schoenberg and Busoni, and to then frame it with Bach and one of Chopin’s most elliptical masterpieces is hardly playing to the gallery. Even Gerstein’s choice of a single encore, Rachmaninov’s wonderfully airy and nonchalant transcription of Fritz Kreisler’s Liebesleid, spoke volumes for intelligence since it was Kreisler’s performance of Corelli’s sonata that alerted Rachmaninov to the possibilities of the ‘La folia’ theme being used as the basis for a piano work. The Liebesleid encore was memorably despatched with the same carefree ease one hears on Rachmaninov’s 1921 recording.

Bach’s English Suite – with an ‘Allemande’, ‘Courante’ and ‘Sarabande’ there is nothing ‘English’ about it apart from the title and possibly the sturdy, almost Handelian, jollity of the concluding ‘Gigue’ – received an uplifting joyously exuberant reading, propulsive in the faster movements with utmost clarity in the part-playing, understated and flowing in the ‘Allemande’ and gravely beautiful in the ‘Sarabande’ which clearly registered as the emotional heart of the sequence. Far from treating Bach as a mere opener, the penultimate ‘Bourée’ (No.2) and the final ‘Gigue’, treated here as a kind of quodlibet, both had an unflagging momentum which linger in the mind.

In Rachmaninov’s final work for piano (1931), twenty Variations on Corelli’s Theme, each commentary was superbly and quite distinctively characterised, by turn delicate, volatile, humorous, menacing and playful. According to a letter to his friend Medtner, the composer used to cut sections out if audiences coughed – rather a good idea don’t you think? – reducing the number in one town to just 10! No danger of that here; the voyage launched by the theme came full-circle and dissolved into a supremely dignified coda. Although, sadly, Rachmaninov never recorded the Corelli Variations, from his other recordings one can imagine that he would have brought much the same qualities that Gerstein brought to it, crisp, elegant, razor-sharp and slightly understated like a very good dry white wine.

Opening the recital’s second half, Chopin’s Fantasy brought the one slight disappointment. With its unusual structure and apparent discontinuities, it is a difficult work to bring off. Gerstein eased into it at a relatively flowing tempo, each section moving seamlessly into the next. Perhaps it is better to confront its oddity head on. Whatever the reason, this was the one time occasion in which composer and interpreter seemed less than fully aligned: we might have been listening to Liszt.

The combination of Schoenberg’s Three Pieces, Opus 11, the work in which Schoenberg discarded tonality totally for the first time, and Busoni’s Sonatina seconda, composed at more or less the same time (1912, the Schoenberg is from 1909), was both courageous and instructive (Busoni managed to irritate Schoenberg by re-composing the second of his Pieces so as to salvage it for the tonal world!). Despite having discarded tonality, the first two of Schoenberg’s pieces are comparatively approachable, inhabiting a late-Romantic world, ghostly and in the case of the second Piece full of nocturnal foreboding as though an evil spirit were lurking in the garden; the third, by contrast, is full of undisguised anger and – like Debussy’s Second Book of Préludes – requires three staves to accommodate its outbursts. Busoni’s Sonatina inhabits this same strange crepuscular world, like Proust halfway between waking and sleeping, disconcerting music in, when one awakes from the dream, one is not quite sure what one has heard. Both works received readings of the utmost penetration.

Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No.1 is frequently treated as a white-knuckle-ride for aspiring virtuosos. Not here. As well as pianistic high-jinks there is a section marked ‘Lento occulto’ and full of repressed angst. It was hugely to Gerstein’s credit that as well as providing full value this performance was just as notable for its subtlety. Like Wilhelm Kempff this was three-dimensional Liszt, not Liszt the charlatan. Here and throughout this exemplary recital, there was never an ugly sound. Very, very classy.

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