A Fine Recital from Kirill Gerstein

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mehldau, Brahms, Haydn, Schumann: Kirill Gerstein (Piano) Queen Elizabeth Hall, London 4.4.2013 (RB)

Brad Mehldau: Variations on a Melancholy Theme (UK première)
Brahms: Variations of a Theme by Paganini, Op 35
Haydn: Variations in F minor, Hob XVII: 6
Schumann: Carnaval, Op 9

Kirill Gerstein is a former winner of the Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition and is a recipient of the prestigious Gilmore Artist Award. He is an accomplished jazz pianist as well as a distinguished classical musician and often uses his recitals to showcase works by jazz composers.

Brad Mehldau (b. 1970) is an American jazz pianist and composer and his ‘Variations on a Melancholy Theme’ – here receiving its UK première – was specifically written for Gerstein. It consists of a smoky blues type theme and 14 variations, some of which have an improvisatory feel and some of which are more abstract in nature. Gerstein had an iPad score for the work and used a pedal to turn the pages. He has an instinctive feel for jazz and he seemed to find the right balance between the freedom and spontaneity required for this work and the more formal classical elements. I was particularly struck by the two big variations before the end. The first has a slow introduction and improvisatory feel and Gerstein’s evocation of atmosphere and his decorative filigree work were superb. The second was a more spirited rhythmic affair – it reminded me a little of I Got Rhythm – and here Gerstein brought out the flair and exuberance of the music. It’s a great piece and Gerstein gave it a first rate outing at this recital.

It’s no mean feat to go from a jazz work to Brahms’ fearsomely difficult Paganini Variations – Clara Schumann described the work as ‘Witch’s Variations’ because of the degree of technical difficulty – but Gerstein showed he was fully up to the challenge. He successfully dealt with the series of technical hurdles, including sixths, octaves, awkward trills and leaps, while at the same time exploring Brahms’ rich textures and sonorities in a cultivated way. I would have liked to hear a more powerful and unbridled approach with some of the octave passages, and the finale to Book I did not quite have the incendiary quality that one hears in great performances of the work. However, the phrasing and textural layering was beautifully judged in variation 12 and the octave glissandi were slick and well executed in variation 13. I thought Gerstein was on the whole better in Book II, particularly in the poetically nuanced variations 12 and 13. He deftly handled the treacherous passagework in some of the rapid-fire variations and brought power and conviction to the great climax to the work.

The second half opened with Haydn’s F minor Variations, which are probably the most distinguished set of variations written for solo piano in the second half of the 18th century. The work is a set of double variations alternating between major and minor keys. Gerstein approached this great work in an earthy and unfussy way, capturing the grit and intensity of the music. The ornamentation was elegant and well executed although occasionally I would have welcomed a touch more delicacy and classical refinement. I wondered if Gerstein might also have made more of the contrasts between the major and minor sections. However, he did a good job in building up the dramatic tension in the final section before the final denouement.

The highlight of the concert was Gerstein’s performance of Carnaval, which was an unalloyed joy from start to finish. Schumann’s immortal cast of characters were brought vividly and winningly to life, including the graceful and artful Arlequin; the dreamy and introspective Eusebius, the volatile and exuberant Florestan; the passionate and charming Estrella; and the glittering and brilliant Paganini. The mercurial shifts in mood were handled brilliantly – for example in the transition between Sphinxes and Papillons – while Gerstein was alive to the flights of fancy and to the imaginative literary allusions. The colourful dance numbers were dispatched with brio and elegance while the final march against the Philistines was a thrilling tour de force which brought the house down.

In honour of Rachmaninoff’s birthday, Gerstein performed the Russian composer’s Mélodie Op 3 as an encore.

Robert Beattie