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A Russian Pianist with American Style

Hong Kong
Hong Kong City Hall, Concert Hall
12/09/2009 -  
Johann Sebastian Bach: English Suite No. 2 in A minor, BWV 807
Ferruccio Busoni: Sonatina No. 5 “Brevis”, KiV. 280 (in Signo Joannis Sebastiani Magni) - Toccata, KiV. 687
Franz Liszt: Piano Sonata in B minor S. 178

Kirill Gerstein (piano)

K. Gerstein (© Marco Borggreve)

Since his substitute performance of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto with the HKPO in 2006, the name Kirill Gerstein has been familiar to Hong Kong audience. Wednesday’s concert in the City Hall was his debut recital, in which he chose a technically dazzling program to once again display his accomplished virtuosity.

In the concert, Mr. Gerstein delivered music across 200 years, his recital commencing with Bach’s English Suite and ending with Gershwin’s miniature (as an encore). The opening English Suite in A minor was an elegant and exuberant reading. The elegance came from his tonal cleanness and transparency. Throughout the whole six-movement work, Mr. Gerstein did not step his foot on the pedal for even one moment, even at the slow Sarabande. However, he did not compromise the music’s sense of legato and melodic lines. This reminded me of renowned Bach specialist András Schiff’s interpretation, though Mr. Gerstein’s account was more sinuous and capricious, where Mr. Schiff is more controlled and refined. But what is really at question with Mr. Gerstein’s Bach interpretation, or more precisely, his apparently lack of it, was the textual clarity and contrapuntal interest, the soul of Bach’s music. In those textually intricate movements such as the Allemande and Sarabande, he showed limited interest in bringing the hidden voices to the surface. Though his abundance of improvisatory embellishments gave the music exceptional qualities of elegance and exuberance, the homophonic tendency (perhaps all the repeats as well) soon led to boredom and tiresome. It was the textually plain Bourée and Jig that were most suitable to his fingers.

Before the intermission, Mr. Gerstein rendered Busoni’s two pieces – the Sonatina and the Toccata, both showed an influence from J.S. Bach. Mr. Gerstein seemed more comfortable with these two twentieth century works. The fugal middle section for the Sonatina sounded more convincing that his Bach. The technical hurdles in the Toccata were also overcome without any stress or strain.

Liszt’s B minor Sonata in the second half was the highlight of the evening. The 30-minute single-movement artwork integrates Bachian polyphony, Wagnerian harmonies, and most importantly, Liszt’s own transcendental virtuosity. Throughout the Sonata, poetic musings of exquisite refinement intermingle with dazzling bravura, making it one of the biggest challenges for all aspiring virtuoso pianists. Perhaps these explain why it is performed more regularly in studios than in concert halls. In Hong Kong, this great composition can only be heard once two or three years; but every year, the market is flooded with different new recordings of the piece. It is impossible not to admire Mr. Gerstein’s courage and audacity to bring this masterpiece in front of Hong Kong audience. Once again, his solid technique was fully displayed in the passageworks – he tore through the octave outbursts with arm-blurring speed and scurrying runs with squeaky cleanness. He could afford to bring to life the music’s impetuousness and compelling drive, yet still came across with convincing individualism. But under this Russian pianist’s fingers, there was not even one tiny bit of Russian smell. What is missing was the warm and full tone quality that can be found in most Russian pianists of the past generation. Even the agitated and chordal second theme was rendered with an unassuming sonority. The vehement passage after the fugal episode, before the end of the piece was also delivered with underpowered articulation.

Two encores by Rachmaninov and Gershwin (arranged by Earl Wild) rounded off Mr. Gerstein’s debut recital in Hong Kong City Hall. His early training on jazz music, together with his infallible technique, made the later encore piece particularly enchanting.

It would be unfair to compare this young pianist’s playing to those great masters. But what he missed is just what his Russian predecessors possessed. Now at the age of thirty, Mr. Gerstein still has a large room for changing and improving himself. If Mr. Gerstein can inherit the golden tradition left by his anteceding compatriots, with his impeccable virtuosity and wide range of repertoire, his name can certainly be left in the piano hall of fame.

Kirill Gerstein’s Website

Danny Kim-Nam Hui



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