Kirill Gerstein

Kirill Gerstein Musica Viva 2024Musica Viva. Adelaide Town Hall. 20 Jun 2024


Kirill Gerstein’s performance was underscored by patience and deep respect borne out of profound understanding of the music he played. From the opening phrases of Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat major, Op. 61, with its heaven-seeking ascending arpeggio over five octaves, we know that Gerstein is in full control and empathetic with the composer’s intent. He is at one with the music behind the notes. The complexity of the Chopin is tamed with a stillness in his approach – it’s as if the caged complexity that is impatient to be freed is somehow calmed before release. Gerstein allows the inventiveness of the piece to unfold and unencumbered by strict metronomic timing his interpretation hints at the piece’s intrinsic jazz inflections.


Every live performance of any piece of music is always a unique experience – never to be heard that way again – but Gerstein takes it to another level as he gives us brief moments of stillness to pause and prepare for a different listening experience. With the final cadence of the Polonaise-Fantaisie completed, Gerstein promptly but gently rises and steps away from the piano: his work is done, and the music speaks for itself. From the perspective of the audience, it is altogether a different experience.


With little fuss, Gerstein sits again at the piano and resumes his carefully designed program. A contemporary work by American jazz pianist, composer and arranger Brad Mehldau follows – Après Fauré No. 3: Nocturne – and it is selected to lead into Nocturne No. 13 in B minor, Op. 119 by Gabriel Fauré. The jazz influences of the Mehldau prepare us for the complexities of the Fauré but not entirely for its vehemence and tortured sadness. Gerstein respects the intensified emotion and checks any longing to play with overly demonstrative exuberance.


Francis Poulenc’s delightful Three Intermezzi follow, and Gerstein’s fingers caress the piano’s keys throughout with a lightness and tenderness that is the perfect salve for any angst caused by the Fauré. This is followed by a spirited reading of Liszt’s Polonaise in E major, S. 223 No. 2, and Gerstein’s beguiling lightness of touch in the right hand makes us more acutely aware of the nationalistic feelings the Polonaise form can stir in us.


The second half of the program began with more Chopin. Again, Gerstein demonstrated his deep understanding of form, and his reading of the Fantaisie in F minor, Op. 49, was a delight: lightness of touch, moments of stillness and introspection, and a lush and fulsome approach to the piece’s glorious melodies.


The penultimate work on the program is a new work by highly regarded Australian composer Liza Lim AM. It was commissioned by Musica Viva through the Hildegard Project. Entitled Transcendental Étude, it might be assumed that the piece is taking a nod at Liszt, but Lim suggests in her program notes that the work is trying to get at something more tangible – striving for freedom. The work is at times dense and has an air of urgency, but Gerstein imbues its insistence with a measured patience. The composition keeps itself in check but none of its emotion is lost. If anything, it is amplified, and we are left in a state of contemplation at its almost abrupt ending.


The program is rounded out with a lively reading of Robert Schumann’s Carnival of Vienna, Op. 26, which is redolent in dance rhythms and light-hearted hummable tunes. Gerstein plays the multi movement piece with contained élan and ensures coherence and balance. Above all, he is patient and allows the composition’s highlights to emerge as intended by the composer without being rushed or being blurred by unnecessarily emphasising music that plays more of a supporting than a leading role.


It has been said that Kirill Gerstein is a poet of the piano. This concert is indeed a demonstration of that.


Kym Clayton


When: 20 Jun

Where: Adelaide Town Hall

Bookings: Closed