A bit of Bach and a lot of Liszt…a music review by Fraser Beath Mc Ewing

August 18, 2015 by Fraser Beath McEwing
Read on for article

Russian pianist, Kirill Gerstein climbed a pianistic Mount Everest at Sydney’s Recital Hall last night by tackling Franz Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes, but not before warming up on Bartok and Bach.

Kirrill Gerstein

Kirrill Gerstein

After hearing him play superbly last week with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, I had high expectations for this solo recital. And while I was not disappointed, I was a tad unfulfilled.

The concert began with Bela Bartok’s two Chromatic Inventions from Mikrokosmos Book Six. These are studies often given to piano students, beginning with Book One, the simplest, and finishing with Book Six, the most difficult. Reading between the lines, Gerstein wasn’t totally familiar with these two quite brief pieces because he played from the score spread out in front of him on the piano desk. However, they were faultless in execution.

Folding up the Bartok sheets, Gerstein embarked upon Bach’s Sinfonias (Three-Part inventions) BWV 787 – 801. Again these are pieces often assigned to students because they develop the skill of projecting three distinct voices through relatively simple note structures. In performance, a game of ‘I give and you perceive’ develops between pianist and listener. There is another dimension to these pieces too: to use or not to use the sustaining pedal. Since they were written for the harpsichord (sans pedal) each pianist must make up his or her own mind when playing them on a modern piano. Glenn Gould was a peddler but Andras Schiff (my favourite living exponent of Bach’s keyboard works) is not. Gerstein falls into the Schiff camp, leaving his right foot at rest next to the stool throughout the Sinfonias.

The result was a very clear delivery, made all the cleverer when you realise that longer note values were achieved by finger-linger rather than foot-fall. Gerstein got better as he immersed himself in the fifteen inventions that are really more an exercise of the mind rather than piano technique. I revelled in the colour that he extracted from the pieces but was a little disappointed in the clarity of the trills and other ornaments.

Preferences for Bach interpretations are like preferences for Martinis. I like mine dry but that doesn’t suit everybody. Many in the audience would have been enthralled with Gerstein’s Bach – and with valid reasons.

The main attraction on the program was Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes, twelve hellishly difficult pieces that Robert Schumann described as ‘studies in storm and dread for, at the most, ten or twelve players in the world.’

With today’s competition for superiority so fierce among concert pianists, there are huge numbers who play the Liszt Etudes, but very few who will tackle all twelve consecutively in a live recital. The task takes more than an hour – mostly at sprint speed.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Fraser Beath McEwing

Kirill Gerstein demonstrated both the technical mastery and stamina to see the Etudes through, not just to get hailstorms of notes away, but to bring shape and meaning to pieces that are often seen more as piano gymnastics than music.

Gerstein is a big man with big hands – and that helps when you are alternating between the giant chords, hammering double octaves and blistering runs that Liszt demands of players. He also sits calmly at the keyboard, letting the music stir the audience rather than pulling Lang Lang-type faces. He never looked or sounded overwhelmed during any of the twelve etudes. Yet there were times when I wanted a climatic thunderbolt that didn’t eventuate. That’s why I felt a little unfulfilled. But that may have been just me. The audience certainly gave him a foot-stamping reception when he’d finished.

The impression of the Liszt I took away with me was one of poetry and pictures rather than simply a virtuoso performance. My favourite etude was Ricordanza, with its operatic flavour weaving through a minefield of technical challenges. That’s Liszt at his best, when he fights to make a tune triumphant over a clashing interplay of brilliant, irresistible distractions.

Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels and a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.