Kirill Gerstein recital


Wigmore Hall recital

Thursday 14 May 2015

I’ve not been going to many piano recitals recently. Too often in the past year or so I’ve traipsed into London full of eager anticipation, an interesting programme promised, an exciting talent on offer – and I’ve come away underwhelmed, undernourished and generally disappointed. This is particularly true of recitals in the Queen Elizabeth Hall where I’ve heard some very good pianists unable to cope with the venue’s acoustic: either the notes are not articulated clearly, or they have played too fast or they have not projected, with the result that one frequently wonders what is going on in the music.

On Thursday I was invited to the Wigmore Hall to hear Kirill Gerstein. I’ve interviewed him a couple of times, once to promote his recording of the Tchaikovsky B flat minor concerto – the first time anyone had used the new critical edition based on the composer’s own conducting score (which contains many variants to the third version published after his death with unauthorised alterations – the one we generally hear today) – and once to talk about the five recordings that had most influenced him. Kirill is one of those genial, generous personalities who love to talk – he’s great company – but I had never heard him play live.

Kirill Gerstein
Photo: Marco Borggreve

The programme was unusual. He kicked off with two of Bartók’s Mikrosmos (the score laid flat on the music rack). Without a pause (and applause) he finished these inconsequential openers and led into J S Bach’s 15 Sinfonias, each one (except the E flat and B flat numbers) stepping up a tone of the C major scale. They were written for pedagogical reasons and they don’t make convincing recital fare. More worryingly, Gerstein produced an unattractive tone and little dynamic or voicing variation from one piece to the next. Where was the singing, the jeu perlé, the sophisticated pianist’s touch?

The first half lasted a mere 30 minutes. We reassembled for the second half: a rare chance to hear a live performance of all twelve of Liszt’s Transcendental Studies. The reason why few people ever play more than a selected handful is that a) they are all – with the exception of No. 3 – incredibly difficult and b) they demand huge reserves of stamina to play one after the other. Gerstein not only had the technical facility to sweep aside all the myriad challenges Liszt throws at the pianist but actually revelled in the enormous task. He didn’t even break sweat or pause to wipe his forehead halfway through. And musically it was a complete triumph. The piano whispered, roared and sang in equal measure. The audience sat through it in rapt silence and, after the hour-long marathon, rose to give him a well-deserved standing ovation.

I went round to see him afterwards. Cool as cucumber, modest acceptance of my effusive congratulations and took the time to say how good he thought the ‘5 Recordings’ article was. Strange how so many super-star pianists can be difficult, neurotic, insecure and socially inept. Not Mr Gerstein.

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