Making his Celebrity Series debut Friday night in Jordan Hall, pianist Kirill Gerstein gave us a thought-provoking evening of familiar works and the Boston debut of a new one by Timo Andres. In all of the pieces Gerstein brought expressive courage and a probing approach that allowed us to see old friends with a new understanding. It is as if he put each piece on the analyst’s couch and coaxed it into revealing its secret.
The program opened with Haydn’s Variations in F minor: Un piccolo divertimento, a set of double variations, the two main themes respectively in F minor and F major acting like a conversation between two old friends, or between body and soul, ending quietly and peacefully with thoughts drifting toward heaven. Gerstein carefully restrained the romanticism of the opening statement, suppressing the emotional inner turmoil, even the sudden upward arpeggio at the end of the F major theme. The effect was to allow feelings to erupt uncontrollably in the coda, unleashing a passionate grief that had been there all along and now seemed to take even the composer himself by surprise.
Schumann’s Carnaval: Scènes mignonnes sur quatre notes is one of the great Romantic masterpieces, an inspired portrait of a masked ball, filled with characters from the commedia dell’arte and with brilliant musical portraits of Schumann’s friends and of his own dual personalities, ending with his manifesto-like march against the Philistines. That is the outward appearance, but Gerstein implied that the piece is really about Schumann grappling with a kaleidoscope of emotions and the conflictual realization that he was about to make a major mistake in marrying Ernestine von Fricken instead of Clara Wieck. The opening Préamble swept us onto a multiply shifting ground, as if reflecting Schumann’s inner upheaval. The ensuing vignettes of comic characters seemed to reflect Schumann’s own fragmentation—explicitly in the dreamy Eusebius, played here pp and the contrasting Florestan, fiery and impetuous. Gerstein played repeats in many of the vignettes and he also played the Sphinxes, as extended tremolos. This helped to integrate the work into a continuous metamorphosis.
The revelation here was Gerstein’s interpretation of the Chiarina, where Schumann seemed suddenly to reach out to Clara in distress, followed by the tender Chopin, her reply. Pantalon and Columbine have never in my hearing been portrayed with such a clear understanding of how their constant bickering is what unites them, presaging the relation between Robert and Clara. The bold and powerful concluding Marche des “Davidsbündler,” with its wedding-song Grossvater Tanz, brought the Carnaval to a subversive state of defiance and palpable liberation.
The second half of the concert began with Old Friend, a piece written for Gerstein by Timo Andres. The friend in question is Chopin’s third Scherzo, with its chorale and beautiful cascades of descending arpeggios in the middle section. Andres describes Old Friend as “a relentless kind of piece, both in its treatment of musical material and in the challenges it presents to the pianist.” Gerstein gave it an expansive, enigmatic ring, full of pregnant surmise and moments of exquisite laceration, testing the solidity of a great expressive leap beyond minimalism. Voices in different rhythms and harmonies eventually meshed and formed a straight chorale, then a softer section that led to a clear statement of Chopin’s original chorale coming as an emotional climax. The work ended quietly, drifting away from us toward its own place, but leaving a great deal to think about. The work was greeted by the audience as a solid and meaningful piece. Andres trotted onstage, hugged his old friend Gerstein and beamed.
Mussorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition –A Remembrance of Viktor Hartmann was written after a posthumous show of works by Mussorgsky’s friend Hartmann, who had suffered a sudden and untimely death. The set of pieces has attracted the attention of many great pianists over the years, surprisingly for vignettes that strike some as rather simple, or even simplistic. But in great hands an enormous depth of interpretive possibilities is revealed. Gerstein’s was a monumental reading, evident from the bold, dramatic opening “Promenade,” foretelling the similarly bold “Bogatyr Gates” at the end of the piece. “The Gnomus,” dark and foreboding, twisted and deformed, similarly announced the grotesquely evil “Baba-Yagá.” “The Old Castle” evoked the vanished medieval valor of old Russia, followed by a resolute “Promenade” to the perfectly depicted children fighting in the “Tuileries,” symbol of “the Westernizers.” “Bydło”, the oxcart, began ff as in Mussorgsky’s original version, overburdened with the unbearable weight of daily existence, struggling endlessly into the distance. Gerstein led us inexorably toward the descent into the “Catacombs,” to commune with the dead in a marvelously ethereal “Con [sic] mortuis in lingua mortua.” This provoked the truth at the heart of the piece to burst forth in the savage “Baba-Yagá” vignette, where death was revealed to be hideous, unmediated, and hungry for its prey. Gerstein evoked the nightmare of pursuit by the “Hut on Fowl’s Legs”—we attempt to hide, but to no avail. This led directly to the powerful, resolute evocation of the Great Gate, signifying our shared heritage and urging us to persevere through whatever passages life presents, with fortitude, persistence and bravery, into the unknown.
Pressed by an enthusiastic audience, Gerstein graced us with an encore, Rachmaninoff’s third piece, “Melody,” from the Morceaux de Fantasie, Op. 3.