Bach: Four duets
Debussy: Preludes, Book I
Chopin: Three Waltzes
Op. 34, No. 3, F Major
Op. Posth. E Minor
Op. 42, A-flat Major
Adès: Three Mazurkas for Piano, Op. 27
Brahms: Piano Sonata No. 2 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 2
The past couple of weeks have found the piano lover in me in an exceptionally well stocked candy store with various types of equally terrific performances by Stephen Hough, Jeremy Denk and Leif Ove Andsnes. And to make it through the finish line in minimalist but still grand style, there was a solo recital by Kirill Gerstein at Town Hall yesterday afternoon as part of People’s Symphony Concerts’ Salomon series.
The Russian-born, American-educated and jazz-loving classical pianist has been increasingly making a name for himself these past few years, and after getting to know him as a recital partner of Steven Isserlis and a soloist with the New York Philharmonic, I was very much looking forward to hearing him play by himself.
I have to admit though, that I was much less eager to step outside into the pouring rain that just would not let up all day. But the double opportunity of witnessing Gerstein perform his drool-inducing Bach-to-Adès program and finally getting together with my friend Paula, a People’s Symphony Concerts regular, whom I had not seen in months were more than enough to get me out of the door and into the deeply depressing world outside.
It all started, logically enough, at the beginning with Bach and his “Four Duets”. In the hands of a lesser pianist, these four nuggets could have sounded like unexciting exercises, but Gerstein dispatched with precision and flair, easily connecting to Johann Sebastian Bach’s composing brilliance and free spirit.
I have been enjoying quite a bit of Claude Debussy, namely his two Books of Images, a little while ago courtesy of Stephen Hough, and I was more than ready for Book I of the Préludes yesterday. If anything, Gerstein’s superb performance of the 12 self-contained vignettes confirmed what a perceptive musician he is and what a ground-breaking composer Debussy was. From the entrenched seriousness of the “Danseuses de Delphes” and the eerie quietness of “Des pas sur la neige” to the exquisite expressiveness of “La fille aux cheveux de lin” and the light insouciance of “La danse de Puck”, these short scenes were beautifully drawn with sharp little details and myriad delicate colors. My personal favorites have always been the mercilessly blustery “Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest” and the profoundly calm “La cathédrale engloutie”, and I was thrilled to be able to experience them live again.
Three waltzes from Frédéric Chopin welcomed us back after intermission and quickly delighted us all. They may not be the most outstanding pieces among his impressive œuvre, but according to my pianist friend Nicole and many other connoisseurs, he was “pretty much the king of the piano” and their refined melodies were the perfect breath of fresh air that we all sorely needed.
Thomas Adès’ “Three Mazurkas” injected some cool contemporary vibes into the traditional Polish folk dance, which incidentally was one of Chopin’s specialties. The first one was still on the old-fashioned side, but the second one was diabolically turbulent, and the third one quietly haunting. Each mood stood out on its own merit and in contrast with the other two, and all together they eventually formed a distinctly compelling trio.
The program ended with Johann Brahms’ dense and tightly controlled Piano Sonata No. 2, the first sonata he composed for the piano (although it was published second, hence its name). Gerstein’s appropriately unsentimental yet deeply committed performance was tightly controlled too, but nevertheless fully conveyed the intense drama as well as the dark beauty of the piece. No wonder the work written by 25-year-old Brahms floored Robert and Clara Schumann when they first heard it.
But that was not all, as Gerstein responded to our enthusiastic and extended ovation with a delectable treat by Franz Liszt, a musician whose dazzling virtuosity he is clearly on the right path to match sooner than later. And then we went back outside in the rain to go enjoy two other of life's simple and yet so satisfying pleasures: wine and conversation.