Kirill Gerstein’s journey through genres: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

August 6, 2019 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Visiting 40-year-old Russian-American pianist, Kirill Gerstein, is at the top of his game.

Kirill Gerstein

With international competition wins behind him and now in demand by an array of leading orchestras for concerto appearances, these are Gerstein’s golden years of performance. Almost in appreciation of his rise toward the top tier he gave last night’s Sydney City Recital Hall audience a generous selection of composers. They included Liszt, Beethoven, Janacek, Ades, Debussy, Komitas and Ravel. And into that broadly based mix he added encores by Bach and Chopin – both played at warp speed.

Gerstein went straight into a sprint when he opened his recital with Liszt’s Transcendental Etude No.7 Eroica.He didn’t sound quite warmed up as he tackled its demanding double octaves and runs. While the performance was accurate, it lacked the passion this piece usually commands and I wondered if his reputation as a formidable Liszt exponent had been misplaced.

Even for those unfamiliar with Beethoven’sFifteen Variations and Fugue in E flat major, the penny drops after the first ‘Eroica’ statement. From then on, it invites one to sit back and listen to the genius, and sometimes wit of Beethoven as he puts his Eroica theme to all kinds of end uses and then serves up a fugue to cap it off. While Gerstein gave a well-researched reading with rich tonal variation, his tempi seemed to get out of kilter here and there which detracted from the performance.

Janacek’s Piano Sonata, 1.X.1905 From the Street, followed and the concert took off with a whoosh.  Music lovers are fortunate to be able to hear this piece at all, since Janacek torched the third movement and later tore up the rest and threw the piece into the Vitava River. Luckily, a prominent pianist of the day, Ludmila Tukova, had copied the first two movements – which is what Gerstein played. Not only is this a work that tugs at the heart, Gerstein’s take on it was other-worldly. To me, it was the highlight of the concert – although there were some other stand-outs to come.

Interval done, Gerstein recalled Liszt to get things moving again, this time with Funerailles from Harmonies poetiques et religieuses. This is Lisztian drama at its most thunderous, with every chance of demolishing the piano. But Steinway builds its Model Ds to withstand explosions and still remain receptive to great tenderness. After Gerstein’s first, somewhat flat Liszt, I was apprehensive. I shouldn’t have been, because he nailed it. The big moment is when the left hand erupts in repeated semiquaver passages. He got the Steinway to roar – prompting a similar reaction from the audience.

Gerstein is very much a today’s musician, with interests in jazz as well as contemporary composers. When he won the $300,000 Gilmore Artist Award in 2010, rather than blow it on transitory pleasures he commissioned works from up and coming composers. British-US composer, Thomas Ades, became part of the movement, but in this case was commissioned to write a piano adaption for Kirill Gerstein: Berceuse from The Exterminating Angel, Ades much admired opera. Having never heard his piece before I didn’t know what to expect in its five-minute duration. ‘Contemporary’ usually offers up tough love – but not this time. We heard some of the richest, most complex harmonies imaginable, culminating in a passage I can only describe as an awe-inspiring black volcanic eruption. It left Liszt in its wake and I can’t wait to hear it again.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Almost as a balm, two brief Debussy works followed: ElegieandLes soirs illumines par l’ardeur du charbon.  Also brief, and contemplative, but with an Armenian accent, were two of Six Dances by Komitas. While Gerstein played them with admirable voicing and tenderness, I was distracted, still recalling the two previous gorgeous storms.

Gerstein may have been tempted to go out in a shower of sparks but instead chose Ravel’s group of six pieces making up Le Tombeau de Couperin – although the work has nothing to do with Couperin’s tomb. It was more an expression of dedication to Couperin, with musical references to his baroque period. Each piece is a remembrance of comrades who died in the Great War (1914 -18) in which Ravel served. Gerstein was very much at home with Ravel – which I’d guess to be his sweet spot. The six pieces were superbly played, especially the final, spectacular Toccata, which makes similar, although not as sustained technical demands as Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit – reputed the most difficult-to-play piano solo ever written.

Sydney City Recital Hall 5 August 2019

Fraser Beath McEwing is a pianist, commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation which assists talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of five novels and a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home. A body of his work can be found on 

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