United Kingdom Bartók, Bach, Liszt. Kirill Gerstein (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 14.5.2015 (RB)
Bartók – Two Pieces from Mikrokosmos Book VI
Bach – 15 Sinfonias BWV 787-801
Liszt – Études d’exécution transcendante
Liszt’s Études d’exécution transcendante are among the most technically demanding works in the piano repertoire and it is rare to hear pianists playing all twelve of the studies in one concert. Performances of the complete studies are seemingly like waiting for buses – you wait for ages and nothing arrives and then two come along at the same time. Daniil Trifonov performed the studies very recently in the Royal Festival Hall (review) and now it was the turn of Kirill Gerstein to present his interpretation of the set. Before embarking on this conquest of the Everest of the keyboard, Gerstein performed a series of inventions by Bartók and Bach
The two inventions by Bartók which opened the concert took their inspiration from Bach. Gerstein’s playing was clean and incisive and I liked the dry sound which he produced and his pointing of the angular rhythms. He moved without a pause to the 15 Sinfonias which Bach wrote in 1723 for pedagogical purposes. Gerstein’s performance of these miniature masterpieces was stylish and tasteful. He showed his appreciation of baroque ornamentation –for example some very intricate decoration in the opening C major Sinfonia – and the contrapuntal lines were nicely delineated. He captured the character of the pieces very well and I particularly enjoyed the graceful flowing E flat, the playful and joyous F major and the brooding intensity of the F minor. I wondered if there might have been scope to deploy a wider range of tone colour and dynamics and to use the pedal a little more sparingly on occasion. Having said that, there was much to admire here and the set provided a nice curtain raiser to the main event of the evening.
Liszt’s music has a fairly bad press nowadays – many take the view that he produced flashy virtuoso show-pieces which are fun to listen to but which have limited musical merit. There is no doubt that some of the music is very banal but there are also real jewels among the piano music and the transcendental studies fall into that category. Some of the studies such as ‘Mazeppa’ and ‘Feux follets’ are enormously difficult but they are also highly coloured and imaginative tone poems. Other studies such as ‘Paysage’, ‘Ricordanza’ and ‘Harmonies du soir’ are sensitive, nuanced, poetic masterpieces.
Gerstein clearly has an enormous technique and for the most part he had no problem negotiating the daunting technical demands. The glittering passage-work of the opening ‘Preludio’ was dispatched with brilliance and élan. His performance of the A minor study was authoritative but I felt the tone was a little thin in places and I would have liked to hear more of the diabolism in the semi-quaver triplet oscillations. There was some gorgeous tone painting and layering of the textures in ‘Paysage’ and very expressive handing of the harmonic progressions. In ‘Mazeppa’ I was struck by the way Gerstein harnessed an almost superhuman technique to the service of the music to illuminate the highly dramatic scene being depicted rather than treating the dazzling pyrotechnics as an end in itself. (In the poem on which the music is based Mazeppa is tied naked to a wild horse and endures a harrowing journey as the horse is left free to gallop across the countryside.) The performance of ‘Feux follets’ was not as fast as some pianists take it but I thought the tempo was well judged (the piece is marked Allegretto) and I liked the lightness and shimmering delicacy which Gerstein brought to the piece. There was one occasion when I felt he was not as technically secure as he might be but that is not altogether surprising given the extreme difficulties of this piece and everything else he had to contend with.
Gerstein’s performance of the studies seemed to get better as the set progressed and the two stand-out performances were ‘Wilde Jagd’ and ‘Ricordanza’. ‘Wilde Jagd’ depicts ghostly huntsmen riding in the night sky and the spectral shadows of the opening were brilliantly realised. There is a gorgeous love song in the middle of the study and Gerstein did a wonderful job kindling the smouldering passions against a richly coloured semi-quaver accompaniment. He also brought a gossamer-like delicacy to the rippling arabesques of ‘Ricordanza’ – this was intensely lyrical, limpid playing that showed a highly refined sensibility. Gerstein conjured up a wonderful palette of colours for ‘Harmonies du soir’ while ‘Chasse-neige’ was richly atmospheric with the unrelenting bleakness and ferocity of the snow storm embodied to perfection.
Overall, this was an absolutely stunning feat of technical wizardry and I was pleased to see the audience (which included a number of famous pianists) responding by giving a standing ovation.