The core of Tannery Pond’s 20th Anniversary season consists of three recitals by important pianists who are on the cusp of entering the middle of their careers. We have already heard Jeremy Denk, a musician of exceptional intellectual and technical power, who has attained an extraordinary ability to identify himself with the composer’s thought processes. On the other hand, Kirill Gerstein, who appeared on Saturday evening, July 31, is a pianist in the classic Russian tradition. He came to Maverick straight from Tanglewood. His playing even reminded me somewhat of Emil Gilels in its crisp articulation, even balance of voices, and firm grasp of the architecture of the compositions. Gerstein’s color has more variety and is basically more pleasant than Gilels…in his recordings, at least. And then there is that certain emotional distance of the great technician, although no one could say that Gerstein doesn’t get involved in the music. Still, he maintains certain limits.
Gerstein’s background, however, could not be more different — with no pedagogical connection with Gilels whatsoever. As his official biography states, he was born in 1979 in Voronezh, Russia, where he attended a special music school for gifted children and taught himself to play jazz by listening to his parents’ extensive record collection — a phenomenon typical of that period in Soviet cultural history. He came to the U.S. at 14 to continue his studies in jazz piano as the youngest student ever to attend Boston’s Berklee College of Music. However, he also continued working on the classical piano repertoire. Following his second summer at the Boston University program at Tanglewood, he decided to focus mainly on classical music and moved to New York City to attend the Manhattan School of Music, where he studied with Solomon Mikowsky and earned Bachelors and Masters of Music degrees. He continued his studies with Dmitri Bashkirov in Madrid and Ferenc Rados in Budapest.
Gerstein first came to the attention of Christian Steiner, the director of Tannery Pond, in 2000, when he was still a student at MSM. Mikowsky called Christian Steiner and asked him if he could photograph one of his extremely talented students who was sure to “be someone.” Steiner photographed him and also heard him play; he was duly impressed. As it happened, a performer cancelled for the Tannery series, and he asked Kirill if he could fill in. Christian recorded the concert and sent a tape to an agent in London, who immediately asked Mr. Gerstein to make a recording. That was the beginning of Kirill Gerstein’s public career.
Gerstein produces a big sound when he plays, a sound easily capable of commanding Carnegie Hall or some other grand venue. While one couldn’t describe it as excessive, it was often a bit much for the Tannery and its fine Yamaha, especially considering that three of the works on the program could be considered intimate in scale, and even Frederic Chopin’s Fantaisie in F minor, Op. 49 has been addressed intimately by some pianists.
He began with J. S. Bach’s English Suite No. 2 in A Minor, BWV 807, during which he dutifully avoided touching the pedals even once with his feet. For some years, there’s been a resurgence in playing Bach on the piano. Among the younger generation —younger than Mr. Gerstein — the excellent French pianist David Fray has created a sort of rallying point in his outstanding disc of keyboard concerti. While he remains very much his own man, it is clear that he has studied the work of his greatest predecessors closely, among them Edwin Fischer and Glenn Gould, and his playing is full of reminiscences of these masters in the spirit of an homage. Gerstein looks at the suite as an example of great pre-Romantic keyboard writing and he played it as a virtuoso. His balance of tone and of the different voices, as well as his use of color to differentiate them, were especially compelling. He produced a rich, burnished sound from the piano, especially when he was not playing loud, and he supported Bach’s counterpoint with a full, resonant bass line.
Gerstein took a grand, almost epic approach to the Frederic Chopin Fantaisie in F minor, Op. 49, taking it as one of the composer’s most ambitious display pieces, although his projection of its organization was clear and controlled. The quieter passages seemed more like calculated structural contrasts rather than real shifts in the composer’s psychic state: they never wandered far from the dominant bravura spirit of the interpretation, although they were beautifully articulated and handsome in timbre. With the Chopin year upon us, I’ve been hoping to hear his music performed in a way that truly goes beyond the notes and impresses me as idiomatic, and I haven’t come upon it yet. Peter Serkin’s Chopin last fall was a joy to hear, but he goes his own way with it. We have two all-Chopin recitals from Garrick Ohlsson coming up in late August and another as part of the Troy Chromatic Concerts at the end of September, so that should be something to look forward to. Kirill Gerstein played admirably, but he remained on the surface of the music.
The second half of the concert began with a fairly short piece by Oliver Knussen, Ophelia’s Last Dance, Op. 32 (2004/10), which was receiving its premiere in its final form. Mr. Gerstein originally premiered it a few months ago, but the composer decided afterwards to add some 40 bars of music. The melancholy waltz theme, reminiscent of early Berg or Mahler, dates as far back as 1974. Knussen decided not to use it in his Third Symphony, nor did he include it in his Ophelia Dances the following year. It kept recurring to him over the years, and after the death of his wife Sue in 2003, it acquired a nostalgic power for him. Finally in 2009/10 he combined it with other “homeless” fragments of his invention into a rondo form. The association of this thematic material may not be absolutely tight, but it is striking to hear how the more agitated phrases emerge directly from the lyrical dance melody in the transitional passages. One cannot help being affected but this bittersweet, nostalgic music, and Gerstein played it impeccably, avoiding the hints of sentimentality that lurked in the background. As it began, there was a visitation from an enormous greenish-yellow bat, which fluttered over the stage and the balcony. It made something of a ruckus, but Gerstein and the audience kept their composure, and, as the piece wound down, the bat went its way.
I found the Schumann Humoreske to be the most satisfying work on the program, although I did enjoy the Bach. Mr. Gerstein’s approach was again limited, lacking the mercurial quality of the music, which Gieseking or Russell Sherman have captured with disinvoltura, showing their immediate affinity for the essence of Schumann. Once again, Gerstein’s performance showed perfect articulation and a fine sense of how Schumann fit his fancies together into a whole, and this in itself revealed much about the music and was beautiful to hear.