Kirill Gerstein is a big guy, and last Sunday he gave a big performance, attacking the Shalin Liu Hall piano with a vengeance. Likewise his chosen Beethoven, Goehr, and Liszt pieces, all on themes of fantasizing. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anything like it, and not only in its scale, power, and punch.
The pianist’s bio notes how after having been discovered as a Russian teen by famous vibraphonist Gary Burton, he consequently attended Berklee (where he remains in residence), before eventually taking the classical vows. It is true that his sensibility features different rhythmic play and emphases from many. Onstage Gerstein comes across as a relaxed professional, projecting confidence and secure viewpoints, fearless about stabbing the keys and the sustain pedal, and regularly inviting us to enjoy mildly pointed swooning.
Of Gerstein’s inspired Beethoven Opus 27 pair of sonatas, Michael Steinberg captured some of the “unconvention” at which this fantastist pianist was aiming:
The first of the two sonate quasi una fantasia is caprice at its most wondrous—strange, startling alterations of key, speed, and temper. It is as neglected as no. 2 is, or used to be, ubiquitous. … Beethoven wants the [second’s] first movement played “with extreme delicacy” but not at the comatose tempo into which thoughts of moonlight seduce most amateur and some professional pianists. Not many minutes later, with the arrival of the tempestuous and virtuosic finale, the intimacy of this Adagio vanishes, but before it is swept away in those crackling arpeggios and explosions of fortissimo chords, we hear a brief intermezzo. The emotional crescendo over the three movements is unique. As for the finale … there is nothing like it in Beethoven outside the piano music, the percussive element being essential.
And so, with the most potent brio though not as a mere banger, Gerstein in both sonatas pinned every element described. The unbroken Opus 27 no. 1 enacted a real drama of wit, and before it he energized the second movement Allegro with a highly stirring rhythmic self-chase. With Opus 27 no. 2, the famous funereal opening proceeded fully as weirdly as Beethoven intended: ever so subtly rubatoed, and, best of all, properly smeary. Gerstein overpedaled so as to add a faint sour harmonic wash at every change, the strings lightly buzzing and beating each time. This harking-back effect was very effective and not much moonlit: the mourning tune never escapes its past, as it were, the mysterious blurs guaranteeing a spooked and spooky feel. It wasn’t like anything heard before in so familiar a piece, as with so much else about this recital, and produced an interpretation I would like to study. The “emotional crescendo” next turns pensive, now with newly unveiled inner voices, and then the great agitation rounds toward home, ending, in Gerstein’s hands, with a huge bang.
I did not get a lot from Alexander Goehr’s Homage to Haydn, offered up between the Beethoven sonatas, but that may chiefly have been me. Commissioned by Gerstein using Gilmore award moneys, Goehr’s 2012 work comprises a 10-minute set of constructions built using dotted blip figurations and motives—jerky, possibly witty. Gerstein went at these small tortuous torrents with complete seriousness and a jabbing dash, most of it at the same level of loudness. “That didn’t seem like jazz,” commented someone behind me.
Also between the Opus 27 pairing came the palate-filling Liszt Sonata After reading Dante. Gerstein channeled Lazar Berman with a mammoth delivery of all those dotted rhythms, the implied as well as the actual.
The concluding Liszt Transcendental Etudes selections proved almost too much of a big thing, especially in the unrelentingly intense No. 10, the artist still making major points while walloping the instrument. It all perhaps lacked some of the nuance and color of such favored interpreters as Cziffra, Berman, and Russell Sherman, but again that makes Gerstein sound like only a hammerer, which is not the case. Yet when he’s fiercely at work, the SPL is as high as piano can get (the Shalin Liu Performance Center being a close and pleasantly loud space to start with). There was plenty to be impressed with otherwise. The legato in No. 9, “Remembrance”, stood out. The snowscape of No. 12 sounded like a winter storm in hell. No. 8, ‘Wild Hunt”, writhed from the nonstop attacks. But regularly enough there came also a wonderful lounge casualness and offhanded rubato, cocktail-y like the background to a Peter Gunn episode. In addition, Gerstein sometimes pauses for a millisecond before attacking the closing chord or cadence, to punch a point in a way that only a nonclassical pianist would do.
To my ringing ears Kirill Gerstein is a major voice, talent, and interpretative addition to the piano scene. Following the final Lisztean explosion, the person behind me, perhaps a family friend or at least one acquainted with the pianist’s career and approach, called several times for an encore, and when none was forthcoming she said, “He got off easy.” The opposite was the case.