Kirill Gerstein’s masterful pianism and varied program delighted a receptive crowd at Shalin Liu on a stunning Thursday evening with an evolving pink sunset backdrop. Known for his wide-ranging musical tastes and prodigious keyboarding, Russian-born Gerstein studied classical music from early childhood but also taught himself jazz through his parent’s record collection. Gerstein has since become a highly-ought artist with a far-ranging repertoire. A serendipitous encounter with legendary vibraphonist Gary Burton resulted in an invitation from Berklee College of Music to become, at age 14, its youngest ever student, followed by classical undergraduate and graduate degrees at the Manhattan School of Music, many honors, and a lauded international career. Based in Berlin, Gerstein is always warmly welcomed back to Boston.
The program as printed promised Stravinsky’s first piano sonata—which was not much of a success in the composer’s lifetime and is not too listener accessible. However, welcoming comments informed the audience that the recital was meant to have listed the three-movement 1924 piano sonata (the second), a fortunate change, since that later 1924 work is stunning. It combines the contemporary with the baroque. Stravinsky often stated that composing this work allowed him to focus on great composers, especially Beethoven, whom he deeply admired. The composer marked the first and last movements simply with quarter note = 112, though his son, Soulima, apparently dubbed the first movement, Comodo and the last, Finale. That first movement drives forward, yet the voicing recalls a partita, requiring the articulation that Gerstein provided. He seemed possessed, intently moving his lips, almost devouring the music. The middle movement, marked Adagietto by Stravinsky, in A-flat major, contains clear nods to Beethoven in which Gerstein conveyed the movement’s lyrical sense with a fluid touch. The last, which is particularly contrapuntal, channels Bach in a modern time warp that seemed to captivate Gerstein in a riveting performance.
Written in 1828 in the last months of Schubert’s life, Opus 958 (posthumous) with its four towering movements, is legendary. Gerstein emanated strength in the dramatic opening of the sonata with its crashing C minor chord and chromatic modulations. The hymn-like second theme provided respite. The Adagio, an ABABA construct, is described as instrumental, and the melody provides an incantatory line that Gerstein savored in his rendering. The unusually somber A flat major Minuetto Allegro combines touchingly elegant and classical Landler, communicated lovingly by the artist. The final Allegro entertains with its spectacular tarantella, which afforded Gerstein an improvisatory and jazzy canvas.
The formal program concluded with the monumental Liszt B minor sonata, S. 78, marked as a single gigantic work, yet containing four sonata parts within it, preceded by a prologue and capped with an epilogue. The B minor is emblematic of Liszt’s innovative take on the form and necessitates a broad technique and musicality. Gerstein’s version of the Allegro Energetico section resonated with robust and stirring phrasing. The Andante sostenuto section is filled with themes heard earlier, calling for artful lines, which Gerstein more than provided. The scherzo Fugato segment, facilitated by Gerstein’s technical prowess and contrapuntal skill, communicated the appearance of earlier themes with great effect. And audience was practically on its feet by the Finale. It takes a brave and accomplished artist to scale the heights of the Liszt sonata; Gerstein certainly was more than up to the task.
After three such distinct and spellbinding works, I found myself, along with others, hoping for a musical dessert. Gerstein graciously acceded to the encouragement of the excited audience. He offered the mouthwatering fourth of the Bach Busoni chorale arrangements, Nun freut euch, lieben Christen gmein, BWV 734 at warp speed, delighting the crowd. He responded further with Rachmaninoff’s piano transcription of Kreisler’s Liebeslied, and finally, with a Chopin waltz—Opus 42 in A-flat major to conclude a beyond-satisfying evening.