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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Concert Review: A Blizzard of Notes

Kirill Gerstein in recital at Zankel Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Kirill Gerstein and his hammered friend.
Photo by Marco Borggreve. 
The ability to navigate difficult passages on the piano with aplomb is a key to the life of a concert pianist. On Monday night, Kirill Gerstein visited Carnegie Hall's downstairs Zankel Hall with a program of works that stretched his technique to the limit. Mr. Gerstein is a competition-winning Russian-born artist, who has dedicated himself in recent years to the classroom. A recital from Mr. Gerstein is thus a rare event, and the pianist chose a program loaded with technical challenges.

For this performance, Mr. Gerstein chose to open with two of the Chromatic Inventions A and B from Book VI of Béla Bartók's Mikrokosmos. These brief works (together they last about three minutes) are from the encyclopedic whole, itself a teaching tool designed to school the composer's son in keyboard technique. Mr. Gerstein played these with a strict sense of rhythm, establishing the multiple voices and percussive rhythm paramount in these short pieces.

They served as an amuse-bouche before the first course: a tour through the complete Three-Part Inventions by J. S. Bach. These works are also keyboard teaching tools, eclipsed in the composer's catalogue by the better-known and more exhaustive Well-Tempered Clavier. The 15 inventions form a cycle of major and minor keys but leave nine of them out altogether. That does not stop this combination of preludes and counterpoints from being a brilliant example of the Bach catalogue.

Bach wrote his keyboard works for the available technology of the 18th century, and as a result the works will always be subject to some change when played on the modern concert piano Mr. Gerstein essayed a rapid and generally dry technique, letting the music speak for itself and navigating the most florid passages with a sure right hand and command of rhythm. Yet, for all its skill there was something pedantic about this performance, feeling more like a lesson in pianism rather than an exercise in artistic inspiration.

Both of those elements would be necessary for the second half of Mr. Gerstein's program, the finger-busting Transcendental Etudes by Franz Liszt. Liszt was arguably the 19th century's greatest showman of the keyboard, the father of the modern piano recital and a magnetic, Mephistophelean figure who thrilled audiences and terrorized piano-builders with his penchant for percussive technique and virtuoso writing. The Études d'exécution transcendante are among his most dazzling creations, a twelve-headed hydra of technical challenge: formidable for any virtuoso artist. Played together, they are an hour in length.

The torrent of notes that makes up the short opening Preludio seemed bass-heavy, sonorous and powerful yet lacking the abandon needed in starting so formidable a task. He was better in the following Molto Vivace and the atmospheric Paysage, mustering all his resources for the thundering hooves of Mazeppa, an extended tripartite piece that holds genuine terrors for even the most steely-eyed pianist. He met those, but there were still eight Etudes to go.

The second quartet opens with Feux Follets, requiring lightness of touch and a fluid right-hand legato, needed to navigate the glissando-like passages which nevertheless must be precisely played. The slow funereal Vision had a dark coloring, thanks to Mr. Gerstein's strong left hand. The faster Eroica forced the pianist to stretch all over the keyboard, attacking the problem from both ends with a series triplets and sonorous left-hand chords. In the demonic Wilde Jagd, the piano itself started to show the strain of all this keyboard thunder, with Mr. Gerstein racing through the fast tempo and interval leaps.

The greatest dangers lurk in the last four Etudes. The gorgeous singing tune of the Ricordanza was undermined by the aforementioned tuning problems. The brutal Allegro Agitato Molto stretched Mr. Gerstein to the limit. That strain was audible in the homestretch of Harmonies de soir with its long climb from pre-Impressionist coloration to an explosion of violent passions.

Chasse-neige (which translates as "snow-storm" but is sometimes referred to improbaby as "snow-plow") was a whirling tempest of cascading right-hand chords which built to a blizzard of notes. From the center of Mr. Gerstein's hands, an ominous vortex of notes emerged, swirling and rising in volume and played by the invisible "third hand" (a conjunction of the pianist's index-fingers and thumbs). It was an impressive conclusion to this difficult set of piano studies. Following a performance of this level, no encore was needed.

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