Kirill Gerstein talks to Geoffrey Newman

Kirill Gerstein © Marco Borggreve

Kirill Gerstein © Marco Borggreve

Kirill Gerstein has become an increasingly esteemed visitor to North American and European concert halls, moving quite a distance from his original Gilmore Young Artist’s Award in 2002, his debut recording for Oehms Classics, and the initial intrigue over his jazz training. Gerstein was awarded the coveted Gilmore Artist Award in 2010 and subsequently produced an enviable string of CD’s for the German company Myrios, virtually all of which have received strong acclaim. These include the Brahms Viola Sonatas with Tabea Zimmermann, the 1879 version of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto, the Liszt Sonata, and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. His recording of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes has just been released.

He’s very much in the spotlight, and it seemed the right time to sit down and examine his artistic development. In this interview, we spare niceties and move to some depth in revealing Gerstein’s perspective on his progress, repertoire choices and recording experiences, and personal response to some current tendencies in the culture of classical music and performance. The interview took place in conjunction with his performance of the Brahms First Piano Concerto with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra under conductor Lahav Shani.

GN: Let’s start by delving into your new association with Myrios. How did it all happen, and what appealed to you about the association?

KG: Really, it was fairly informal. I was introduced to Myrios’ founder, recording engineer and producer Stephan Cahen, by violist Tabea Zimmermann, who had already recorded with them. The company is recent: it formed in Cologne in 2009. The reason that the collaboration was attractive and has been successful so far is because of the high standards Cahen sets. There is essentially zero compromise on the quality of the product: it’s not subject to budgetary pressures of how many edits the master version can have, restrictions on when we can record, and so on. If I can record repertoire of my choosing on a piano of my choice (or something close) in an excellent venue with superior sound engineering, then who wouldn’t want such an opportunity? It’s ideal, especially when one recognizes that limitations on time and quality are commonplace in today’s recording world. We can work on each recording to the point that no further improvements can be made, and then we can concentrate on its release and distribution.

So far, Myrios stands as a boutique label – what the Germans call ‘small but fine’ – and other accomplished artists have now come on board: Jorg Widmann and the Hagen Quartet, for example. Its distribution is very good, and that’s a bonus. We already have been able to do a number of projects and collaborations together, so there is a positive feel to it all. I suppose this was something I was unconsciously searching for. And yes, I’m lucky to have found it.

GN: How would you have felt about pursuing this type of recording career, say, a decade ago?

KG: It crossed my mind, but essentially I didn’t feel that the right thing had come along: I have a certain organic feeling when it’s the right time for something to happen. A decade ago, it was not that urgent for me to make a statement to the world about a Beethoven sonata, for example. Perhaps I also took comfort in Glenn Gould’s observation that ‘Richter was a wonderful concert artist but didn’t know how to make recordings’. I did make my debut recording in 2003, but it’s such a distant memory now. I am not even sure that the recording still exists but, fine, if it’s there, regard it as one of the sins of my youth. Even then, I was thinking every day, every month, on how to evolve. To me, that’s the important thing: the sense of organic development.

GN: So how do you think the development took place?

KG: Undoubtedly, I worked on expanding the things I could do on the instrument. I tried to build up more tools, in terms of color and devices that my hands felt comfortable with. But wedding this technical dimension to an interpretive maturity (I don’t think they can be separated) was the elusive thing. I suppose I tried hard to become clearer and sharper in what I was attempting to say. A decade ago, things seemed so nebulous and murky in my penetration of a work. Is this a tree or an animal? Do I shoot now or not? Slowly, it becomes clearer – this is a tree, this is an empty space, this is an animal but not so important and not going to shoot. Perhaps this is a description of how any artist gains maturity. Just as when you are learning a language, hopefully your vocabulary broadens and doesn’t shrink, while you become clearer and more precise in expressing your thoughts. At least that is what I think I have gone through: the process involves a lot of trial-and-error.

GN: How do you see this path in light of your early training?

KG: I can go right back to my youth when I first listened to the recording of Rachmaninoff playing his Third Concerto. That’s a memory, but my interest grew from there, and it soon became clear that I liked classical music. It took much longer for me to understand that I might like the piano, and that I might be able to be a pianist. As a child, I didn’t have good instrumental and musical training to begin with, so my interests in the piano remained what might be called ‘normal’, not more. When I was 10, I was sent to a different teacher and, all of a sudden, new vistas opened up for me. This was when I was still in Russia – I was there until I was 14. I think that my slow start was a blessing in disguise. I didn’t spend all my childhood practising scales, 27 permutations simultaneously, etc. Actually, I read books and wandered around the house and outside, and thought about things in general: my field of vision wasn’t limited, and impacted by, the instrument. On the other hand, it meant I had to compensate later. Some things pianistically had to be worked on more intensively from ages 16 to 20, and even much later. Pieces that other young pianists played when they were little, like the Chopin Etudes, I had to worry about anew. Everything is a trade-off and a balance, but I’m happy that it turned out the way it did.

GN: It must take a tremendous effort to move from one’s training and expertise, and even interpretative insight, to make it as an established artist – and not all artists of your generation have been as fortunate as yourself.

KG: There are so many factors: one’s psychological makeup, one’s physiological makeup, one’s teachers (good, bad…who was damaging, who was helpful). Then, the professional beginning, where and how you enter the scene, perhaps through a competition or being helped by an influential conductor, or both. I think that for a music career to be sustainable, one has to pay great attention to the pressures on the body and on mental stability, and this doesn’t remotely touch on all the business complications: getting invited to the right places, choosing good repertoire to play, who hears your work, getting paid, etc. All of this can be a bit forbidding, and I have found that my salvation has always been to concentrate on actual musical substance – the ultimate replenishing force. If a young artist starts thinking about how difficult it is to launch a career, how low the odds of success really are, and how much peril lies around each corner, it can be truly demoralizing and paralyzing. So, every day, I try to keep to a really meditative ritual of going to the piano to do my prayers, staring at myself in the mirror to reveal psychological fears and irritations, and then poking them away and trying to set off and improve. For me, there’s something grounding about that. It would be a lie to say that a performer does not care about a certain level of public approval and admiration, but that can’t be the ultimate reason for playing the piano.

GN: Perhaps there is an element of luck too?

KG: One scarcely denies that a certain element of luck is needed or at least is helpful. One thing that seems essential is to develop enough mastery of the instrument and the repertoire that you can maintain consistency in your performance standards. If someone plays exceptionally 10% of the time, while 90% of the time is a disaster, not that many presenters will take a chance: they hope that the person they hired can deliver at least a certain baseline of quality. People always remember the bad performances. Perhaps this is related to the ‘mastery’ that Rachmaninoff spoke about: performances should achieve a certain level of competence and if, on a given day, things are more inspired, then wonderful! Of course, it is another step to perform internationally. Few artists actually achieve a strong performing profile in both Europe and North America. In fact, there are many artists who are famous in Europe but much less so in North America, and the other way round too. Here is where an established recording career can be helpful in bridging continents.

GN: So how did you approach the recording side of the equation: you started recording for Myrios only about five years ago?

KG: I suppose I had to learn that making recordings was a separate genre from concert performance. Fortunately, the first CDs were of the Brahms Viola Sonatas with Tabea Zimmermann. Playing in a duo allows you to concentrate on the music in healthier ways than when you are alone in the studio; when you are by yourself, you are more likely to start playing and go down the rabbit hole. So that was that. From there, I went on to solo recordings. There were two good things about this start: first, Tabea and I had played the Brahms in concert before the recording; second, I had played a lot of chamber music earlier in Europe. I was lucky to have played with some very distinguished artists: Steven Isserlis, Boris Pergamenschikow, Clemens Hagen; also Gidon Kremer, Yuri Bashmet, and flutist Emmanuel Pahud.

GN: How did you pick your initial solo repertoire?

KG: It is interesting how my choices came to be. I actually didn’t expect that I would record Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition or the Tchaikovsky piano concerto early on. However, when I sat down and examined the Mussorgsky, I had a feeling that what I saw in the score was fairly different from what I had heard performed live by my colleagues. I thought that if it appeared different for me, then perhaps it was a worthwhile thing for me to explore and to record. So I did that. It turned out that some people agreed with my view, while some very much disagreed – which is fine. This is the sort of dilemma an artist faces: if you record something that doesn’t provoke reactions, why make another recording of Pictures? Then, when you actually make a recording that doesn’t sound the same, people get upset: ’It doesn’t fit with how one usually hears this piece’. But some people thought it was good, and I suppose it is what it is.

GN: Don’t you think the proliferation of recordings these days gives younger artists an incentive to try to be different?

KG: Quite possibly, yet I think there’s an important distinction between doing something for the sake of sounding different and doing something because you have certain internal reasons to alter your interpretation based on what the piece actually suggests to you, at least at that time. The former is not valid and can only be called self-conscious or eccentric. For me, it’s like this: I see this in the score, and I want to reflect it in such and such a way. If it ends up sounding different, great, but if it ends up similar to 99% of the other performances, that’s fine too.

GN: What were your reactions to the recording process, with all the takes, editing, and so on?

KG: My basic feeling is that successful recording without some editing is a myth: I do not defend the view that the full live energy of a performance can only be revealed if there are no splices at all. Think of Glenn Gould’s last recording of the Goldberg Variations: there are 680 splices. But do we really care? No, as long as the recording communicates and coheres. There is nothing particularly contrived about the editing process: you still have to play everything at least once! What I think editing allows is to pick up on a variety of moods during the recording sessions, and there is a multiplicity of factors operating here anyway: settling down when you start can be problematic, for example. What I think is objectionable is when one simply splices together the efforts of an artist who cannot actually perform the work whole in concert. What Gould did was quite acceptable. We have many recordings of Gould playing Bach in concerts, and he played just fine. So if he felt like he wanted to play around with it and do 680 splices, it’s actually even more amazing that it sounds so coherent and so lively. In principle, whether a recording is ‘live’ or not, the test will always be whether it conveys both life and musical character.

GN: But how difficult is it to exactly control your interpretation on each outing, even in the studio?

KG: One starts from a definite view of the way a work comes together, but it is true that it can come out as something else. Plus your interpretation changes over time. I still think that there are certain things that are really fixed in a piece because they’re architectural qualities. A transition will always be a transition, a structural ‘wall’ will always remain a wall, but how a transition is expressed can vary considerably. Is it more expansive or compressed today? Is it louder or softer? What’s interesting is that pieces that occupy the supreme place in our musical legacy, such as the last Beethoven Sonatas, seem to offer almost an infinite range of possibilities for expression. Today, you might highlight one particular dimension, but tomorrow you find that if you highlight that, then something else must be in the shadow. Another day, you might feel that the emphasis must be the other way around. Like a diamond, there’s a multiplicity of angles that one can view the work from, and each can seem important in any particular instance.

Kirill Gerstein Photo: Marco Borggreve

Kirill Gerstein (c) Marco Borggreve

GN: Let’s move to the more recent recording of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto, interestingly in its 1879 version. I have seen a division of opinion on this edition: some people like the scaled down quality, others find little difference from the standard one. What’s your perspective?

KG: There are always listeners that demand 50% different notes in order to register a real difference, but what’s striking to me is that the relatively few changes add up to quite a different portrait of the piece. Yes, it’s more lyrical, and it sounds closer to Tchaikovsky’s Russian take on a Schumannesque fantasy, rather than what is typically turned out in the Soviet piano competition last Friday. Obvious differences are there right away: the arpeggiated softer chords, which fit the dynamics of the orchestra, create a lyrical entry to the piece, rather than the usual pompous, blasting one. When you enter the piece in a different way, you automatically perceive the rest of the movement differently too.

After the opening, I don’t play the first main episode very quickly. There’s a feeling of sadness in the B minor: it’s usually played too optimistically. There are many suggestions in the score that the whole movement has a slightly different expressive fabric than what we are used to. In the slow movement, the middle section is not marked prestissimo, but that is what this generation normally assumes. Some of it is marked Allegro vivace, which then makes sense for a waltz quotation from a Belgian tune that the composer liked. It’s set at the speed of a normal waltz, not at the frantic speed of Mickey Mouse cartoon music. Of course, in the last movement, there are 45 seconds of extra music. Some listeners might say ‘Big deal, another 45 seconds of music in a piece that’s 35 minutes in length’. In some sense, that’s true, but it resolves a puzzle in the middle section where this cut is usually made. There’s the opening material, then there’s this change to the middle section with a different mood. With the cut, the composer only stays there for 15 to 20 seconds, then it’s back to the same. It seems like a miscalculation. Why do you introduce some new material, then immediately say ‘Whatever’. It turns out that it wasn’t the composer’s miscalculation; it was the famous Siloti’s! With the restoration of the excised material, the whole movement becomes more balanced. So there are some relatively ‘big’ changes here. If you compare the orchestral parts, there are also about 150 small differences (e.g., crescendos, accents, etc.) A lot the markings have been corrected over the years, and are of course subject to the artist’s interpretation.

GN: So is this a genuine quest for ‘authenticity’ on your part?

KG: I knew that some urtext version of the work existed, and I happened to be in touch with the Tchaikovsky Archive in Russia because I wanted to know about some particular details that deserved discussion. They told me that they had been preparing this 1879 edition, and one thing led to another. It was essentially my curiosity. Of course, to make one more recording of the standard version of this work is absolutely unnecessary because there are 200-300 versions already. Perhaps finding this urtext edition is a valid excuse for creating a little more pollution. For me, this edition shows that the piece is more musical and lyrical and less overbearing and bombastic – and that’s important. It’s kind of like those iconic paintings in a museum that undergo a restoration. It has hung there on the wall for 50 years, so everyone’s used to all the gloomy forest and dark sky, and then it comes back from restoration, and suddenly the forest is not so dark and five figures under the tree suddenly come to life as escapees from someone who had applied another layer of varnish in the 19th century. The sky is in fact not that dark either. But then, someone could come and say, ‘It’s not that different. You still have the trees and the sky’. In the Tchaikovsky concerto, the revelation perhaps works the other way: the heavy layers of paint have long blocked many delicate shades of darkness in the work.

GN: You must have given thought to what sort of piano would fit with this score?

KG: Fortunately, using a modern piano is fine here: there is a good chance that Tchaikovsky would have heard the work on a Steinway or Bechstein. I would say that the DNA of the modern piano was fixed by Steinway in the 1880s, and it has changed and developed quite little, certainly, as compared to the period 1820-1880. Essentially, when you are hearing a modern piano, or any piano from the 1900s, you’re not far away from what they would have heard at the time. But it would be stretching things to think that I’m really after that kind of authenticity. If I wanted to record Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, it’s not like I would run out and try to find a 1924 piano. Sometimes the quest to use authentic instrumentation adds real illumination; other times it seems to serve more as a justification for producing another recording in a crowded market. It’s also a good thing for reviewers who don’t know what to write about: ‘Oh, the sound was so special on the piano from…’

GN: What is your perspective on your most recent Transcendental Etudes?

KG: Well, it doesn’t have the fire and speed of the classic Lazar Berman version, but I wasn’t trying for that. Why should I try to duplicate it? I wanted to highlight a different aspect. A good number have praised the great recording quality I received and my interpretative viewpoint, but others have compared it unfavourably with that iconic recording. I am learning that you will always have some controversy if you do things differently.

GN: I have asked other pianists if they feel their national roots in their playing – with less definite responses than I expected. Given your mix of Russian and American training, where do you think the key influences are?

KG: Some part of my attitude to the piano is certainly Russian, but it’s really a mix of influences by now. To throw some fog into that immediately, the whole Russian school really flows back to the German tradition anyway, and that is largely because of Anton Rubinstein’s training in Beethoven. We can trace Russian roots through Beethoven, Liszt, and Czerny, and even the most celebrated Russian pianists of the twentieth century (such as Richter) received their training from Heinrich Neuhaus, who actually studied with Godowsky in Berlin. How Russian is that school? But there are further mutations: when I came to America to study jazz (another set of influences), it was apparent that there was still some Russian/Jewish émigré influence on American pianism, inherited from the earlier generations of Rachmaninoff, Horowitz, Levine, later Byron Janis – and so on. After studying in Boston and New York, I did go to Madrid to study with Dmitri Bashkirov, a student of Goldenweiser, one of the founders of the Russian School. I also did a lot of studying in Budapest with Ferenc Rados, who was the Hungarian guru to many pianists, including Schiff and Kocsis, and he exerted a strong influence on me. While he embodied the Austro-Hungarian tradition, he also had spent many years studying in Moscow. So there are really a lot of mixed influences here. One also has to face the fact that today we can hear anybody, anytime, anywhere through CDs and online, so things are inevitably more cosmopolitan and less regional.

GN: Do you think global access to interpretations has implications for the quality of the performances we hear today?

KG: Pianists can probably be more vulnerable to the going ‘fashion’ these days but we also must recognize that interpretative cultures change over time (something not spoken about often enough). At any point in time, there are always strong statements to the effect that ‘a Beethoven sonata should go like this’. But there is a certain ebb and flow: how these pieces are perceived two decades earlier and two decades later can be different. For example, if you hear performances from the1970s, they had a different sound – and I don’t just mean the engineering aspect of recordings, but how the piano actually sounded. It changed again in the 1990s, and now too. What’s interesting is that some artists can initially be trend-setters (e.g., Horowitz), yet still transcend fashion and stay fresh no matter what. There are many excellent examples of historical interpretations that remain relevant commentaries on a piece. One manages to get beyond the trappings of the period and see how clearly the structure and feeling of a work is expressed by the artist. In other cases, the period trappings seem to dominate to the interpretation’s detriment. At the same time, while fashions may come and go, it has to be acknowledged that the level of instrumental virtuosity has risen dramatically over these years.

GN: How does this perspective shed light on the ‘classic’ interpreters?

KG: If you hear Ignaz Friedman’s recording of the Chopin Etudes, that’s not easily surpassed. Equally, Alfred Cortot. I have no doubt Cortot put incredible virtuosity together with his insight in his prime, though we find all his wrong notes later on, likely due to the 29 other things he was doing and his disinterest in practicing. One must recognize that, even when we hear Cortot’s performances from the 1920s, he was then almost 50 years old. We probably have no idea of his virtuosity when he was younger. If you see the methodical exercises he proposes in his editions, it’s clear that he had given everything full thought and execution. It’s also striking that when we listen to Rachmaninoff’s own recordings, we are listening to a pianist in his sixties. Something that struck me about Horowitz recently – in his Deutsche Grammophon Chicago recital – is that his playing is by no means elderly, and he’s already in his eighties. The spirit is fully there, and the vitality of his nervous system still creates something quicksilver. Perhaps it is the same for Rubinstein.

GN: Let’s turn to more general issues on the preservation of classical music. Do you think we are doing it right these days?

KG: There are a lot of external pressures on the genre of classical music – from both a cultural and a funding perspective. As practitioners and presenters, I do think we could be doing a better job of explaining why classical music is important for people today. If you speak to musicians, of course Beethoven is important, but for the average educated person who reads, goes to theatre, and is generally receptive to cultural goings-on, we don’t often make the strongest case for why this particular type of music is so amazing and relevant, and why it should be promoted and protected. Of course, that’s separate from convincing complete newcomers to the genre. This is an issue that I think about frequently, and it’s a deep topic. Perhaps there’s no stronger justification for classical music than that it touches one’s emotions profoundly and provides a uniquely pleasurable experience, and that this is an essential ingredient to our well-being. Maybe that’s enough, yet I have a feeling that, both socially and culturally, there are ways in which to better communicate this simple idea. Certainly marketers have to go deeper. They have to go beyond what I read in the pamphlets – ‘Come hear the magic of Mozart!’ or ‘Come experience the sound of XYZ Philharmonic!’ We really have to show why classical music is essential.

GN: Many artists have employed the justification that classical music can serve as a universal language through which communication can take place in spite of significant polarities. Joyce DiDonato expressed this idea in her recent tour. Is that at all persuasive?

KG: I know it’s a fashionable Romantic idea that music is a universal language, but I think it is actually unclear what music expresses. While everyone agrees that it expresses something wonderful that can affect us, this is often individual and subjective, and one can easily doubt that music is very good or clear as a language. Equally present is the idea is that classical music can create transcendent, universal feelings in which all can partake. One might hope this to be true but my general feeling is that what music expresses is not universal or clear at all.

GN: Perhaps one problem is that we often market (and evaluate) the artist more than the music?

KG: That is true – and it has been so for a long time. When Liszt played his Sonata and Schumann wrote an article about it, it was much more about the piece, with a sideline of ‘it was played wonderfully’ or whatever. This still happens for unexplored ‘new music’ pieces, but when conservative orchestras and audiences rely so much on basic repertoire, the diversity of interpreters takes over. According to one perspective, this should not matter: the artist simply stands as a selfless intermediary between the listener and the greatness of the music. Yet I think this ‘selfless’ approach is exaggerated. I actually think you should hear the performers and their individuality, and the individual characteristics are critical. Each performance is a special mix of the performer and the music, and that’s unavoidable.

GN: You have referred to Glenn Gould a number of times. Has he had some influence on you?

KG: Yes, and we’re also in Canada! First of all, a lot of his interpretations were really wonderful – but by no means everything. Second, he was more than just a pianist: he was a writer and commentator on culture and the human condition. There’s also something so strikingly original and unusual (both mentally and physiologically) in the way he played and in his perception of music. I admit that I was truly fascinated with how an instrumentalist could turn out so smart and literate, and informed about so many things. Obviously, I couldn’t be like Glenn Gould even if I wanted to be: it would be quite impossible to play like him, yet I do think of him as an inspirational figure to emulate if one wants to be a ‘thinking’ and multifaceted spokesman for the piano.

GN: So you really want to become a philosopher?

KG: Possibly!

GN: I have saved your ‘most frequently asked’ question for last – about your early jazz training and crossover leanings? Do you think this combination of classical and jazz is blossoming: I have recently seen both Denis Matsuev and Joseph Moog inspired in this direction.

KG: Well, I certainly don’t do jazz concerts now; maybe some mixtures sometimes. I think it’s great that others have started on this road: it’s become much more of a thing again. Nonetheless, experience has taught me that great jazz pianists usually play classical music only competently, and this holds the other way round too. I’ve never seen anybody who manages to perform both at the highest level. Sure, it’s wonderful to see a great jazz pianist play a Mozart concerto, but it’s even more wonderful just to see them play jazz. Friedrich Gulda of course was a wonderful classical pianist who pioneered crossover, but I don’t think he played jazz more than pretty well. For myself, I just came to the point where I had to make a choice: I could not do both at the level I wanted. I’m sure there must be remnants of my jazz training in my current playing, but they are now difficult to dissect, and I can’t tell you what they are. What I am very cognizant of however is just how different my life would be if I had chosen to be a jazz musician.

Geoffrey Newman

I thank Matthew Baird and Yuliya Neverova for recording assistance and Kelly Bao for the transcription.

Previously published in a slightly different form on

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