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

August 18, 2015 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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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.


4 Responses to “A bit of Bach and a lot of Liszt…a music review by Fraser Beath Mc Ewing”
  1. Fraser Beath McEwing says:

    I invite you to watch the YouTube video of Gould’s 1981 Goldberg Variations at https://youtu.be/aEkXet4WX_c and you will see his right foot, attached to his right leg, press the right pedal of the piano. I grant you, his peddling is not excessive, but it is there in spite of what he may have said.
    When is a peddler not a peddler? Your assumption, in Gould’s case, is when he doesn’t pedal very much. Then we must ask, how much is not very much. If the sustaining pedal was wired to a stick of gelignite Glenn would blow me up (which might be a good idea), whereas I’d still be intact after Kirill’s Thee Part Inventions.
    Actually, you’ve done me a favour by making me watch Gould’s Goldberg again. What a wonderful performance!

  2. Fraser Beath McEwing says:

    Have you actually seen the video of Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations?
    It’s on YouTube and you see him peddling. Same in the Art of Fugue. Using the pedal, incidentally, is not a felony. Ivo Pogorelich, whose Bach I very much like, pedals. Holding piano keys down does the same mechanical job as pressing the sustaining pedal, except that it applies to all notes played rather than just those selected. It can be difficult to distinguish between the two when listening rather than seeing. I don’t know whether Gould pedals Bach’s three part inventions. Maybe you are right in that instance.
    Anyway, thanks for your comment.

    • Rags Simon says:

      Oh yes, I have watched the Goldberg Variations video. I even drove to Ottawa to watch the many hours of outtakes from that recording session. You may have seen a foot on a pedal, but most likely it was on the soft pedal, not the sustaining pedal. Gould makes mention of using that soft pedal in the Art of Fugue.
      Just listen to his playing. You will be hard-pressed to hear any sustaining pedal, if at all,

      The following is from an interview of Glenn Gould originally published in the Toronto Daily Star in 1959:
      “I hated to hear anyone play and use the sustaining pedal very much. I thought that was a vulgar thing to do. I was never told it was…but I discovered a very early dislike for the pedal….”
      Gould liked the lean, clear sonority, lacking any tell-tale sonic aura from the sustaining pedal, which became his trademark piano sound.

      The following is from a Tim Page Interview of Glenn Gould that was included with the 1981 Goldberg Variations recording:
      GG Well, you know, there are certain personal taboos, especially in playing
      Bach, that I almost never violate.
      TP Well, I know one of them, for sure: you never use the sustaining pedal.
      GG That’s right.
      TP Because I saw that German television film that was made when you actually
      recorded the new Goldbergs, and it was honestly rather astonishing to see
      you sitting there, thirteen inches off the floor, in your stocking feet, and
      when the camera pulled back they were nowhere near the sustaining pedal.
      GG That’s true.

  3. Rags Simon says:

    Have you actually listened to Glenn Gould? He was not a peddler. He particularly avoided using the pedal. In many interviews with him you can hear him actually stating this. And listening to him play, you will not hear much pedal, if any. Perhaps you you are confusing Glenn Gould with some other pianist while trying to make a contrast to the wonderful Andras Schiff.
    Most anyone who has ever listened to Glenn Gould would take offense at your calling him a peddler. He was not.

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