Heroism and mortality the focus of Kirill Gerstein's piano recital

Review: Concert


26 th Singapore International Piano Festival

Victoria Concert Hall

Last Saturday (June 1)

It is often interesting to attempt to discern the thought processes that go into a pianist’s art of crafting a recital programme. For Russian-American pianist Kirill Gerstein’s debut at the Singapore International Piano Festival, he chose the works of six composers from lands as diverse as Germany, France and Hungary (the usual suspects) to England, Bohemia and Armenia (unexpected sources).

In one of the most intelligently-conceived programmes in a long while, Gerstein’s unifying theme was heroism and mortality, and the death of heroes. Opening with Liszt’s Transcendental Etude No.7, known as Eroica, he displayed a fire-breathing but highly-nuanced brand of virtuosity that was to occupy the entire evening.

Cast in E flat major, its ending went straight into the opening chords of Beethoven’s Eroica Variations, so named as it was based on a dance that ended up in the finale of his Eroica Symphony. There was much humour and resourcefulness in this longer-than-usual set which also included a tricky fugue to bat.

Even more impressive were the sonorities in Bohemian composer Leos Janacek’s Sonata, with a title that carries the 1.X.1905 “From The Street”. That was the date when a worker was stabbed to death during a student demonstration in Brno. Its two movements were harrowingly built up to an angst-ridden climax of tolling bells. A final funeral march was discarded, leaving the work incomplete, enigmatically so.

The funeral march that took its place was Liszt’s Funerailles, opening the recital’s second half. Bass notes were sounded with a left hand’s closed fist and karate chops, and the procession of stampeding left hand octaves was supposedly a tribute to Chopin.

Its companion piece was Thomas Ades’ Berceuse from The Exterminating Angel, written for and premiered by Gerstein last January. Soft bell sounds in treble registers belied the menace of an impending demise, registered by a violent close.

Four very short pieces followed. Debussy’s Elegie and his final piano work Les Soirs Illumines Par L’Ardeur Du Charbon (Evenings Illuminated By Glowing Coals), composed when he was dying of cancer, were brief but atmospheric. Ethnically flavoured were two dances by Armenian nationalist Komitas, representing a way of life extinguished by the Armenian genocide on 1915.

To conclude the evening was Ravel’s Le Tombeau De Couperin, a suite of six antique dances, each dedicated to a friend slain during the Great War. By now, Gerstein’s fluid technique and utter clarity were a given as he breezed through the Prelude and Fugue, followed by a Forlane, Rigaudon and Minuet, each with their own rhythmic interest.

Only in the final Toccata did Gerstein’s near infallibility almost came unstuck, but its thunderous ending and two fast and furious encores (Bach-Busoni and Chopin, nothing to do with death whatsoever) provided an emphatic and heroic close.

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