Canellakis and Gerstein in a Blockbuster Rachmaninoff Third

United StatesUnited States Elgar, Britten, Rachmaninoff: Kirill Gerstein (pianist), Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra / Karina Canellakis (conductor), Music Hall, Cincinnati, OH. 4.1.2019. (RDA)

Kirill Gerstein (c) Marco Borggreve

Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No.3

Britten – ‘Four Sea Interludes’ from Peter Grimes

Elgar – In the South

Kirill Gerstein must have been born to play Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. Notoriously treacherous for pianists, it demands agility, enormous strength, unflagging energy through forty minutes of pianistic hurdles, musicality, and a sense of the poetic. Most of all, it calls for technique that allows the interpreter to plow through an obstacle course with a clear mind and a warm heart, along with complete concentration on what the music is saying rather than on how fast or how loud it says it.

It requires an artist like the 39-year old Russian-born Gerstein. In the composer’s version on YouTube, one can easily understand how Rachmaninoff meant this blockbuster to sound – and Gerstein gave exactly that kind of reading. From on high, Rachmaninoff must have been looking down on the stage of Cincinnati’s Music Hall, beaming with satisfaction at his fellow countryman.

Among many fast-rising young conductors, Karina Canellakis stands out as a candidate for stardom. She made an impeccable partner for Gerstein and led the CSO with assurance and attention.

In the second half, Canellakis led Britten’s ‘Four Sea Interludes’ from Peter Grimes with vibrancy and acute sensitivity, alternating fury and calm. Describing an English fishing village, the interludes’ scope and orchestration are broad and muscular.

Canellakis closed with Elgar’s In the South, a large-scale concert overture with the size and heft of a tone poem. The composer wrote it during a sojourn in the Italian Riviera, and the score is filled with magical, impassioned insights. In a richly colorful reading, the orchestra’s principal viola delivered a beautifully played solo, and the hardworking brass section triumphed.

Rafael de Acha

3 thoughts on “Canellakis and Gerstein in a Blockbuster Rachmaninoff Third”

  1. Did you hear the Friday or Saturday performance? I was in the audience at the Friday concert and it was disappointing to see the pianist, conductor, and orchestra so ill-prepared.

    For starters, there was virtually no communication between Canellakis and Gerstein. Gerstein did his best to stay with the orchestra, but with Canellakis refusing to so much as look at him he could only do so much. At virtually every opportunity, they played out of sync. Sometimes, this is forgivable – it’s a live performance after all, and having played with smaller school and community orchestras I understand there is limited rehearsal time. But when you play the romantic warhorses, there are certain things that you have to nail – such as the orchestra being together on final chords. They badly missed on this in both the first and third movements, to the point where several in the audience laughed.

    From a preparation standpoint, it was clear that Gerstein had trouble with his left hand and was often overshadowed by the orchestra. I don’t really care about missed notes since it’s a live performance – stuff happens, and I’d rather someone play on the edge of their capability to try to be interesting vs. playing it safe and being boring. But this was not just a technical issue – his right hand was fine.

    From an intellectual standpoint, Gerstein seemed intrigued by random middle voices to the extend that he would highlight them at the expense of the luxurious melodies in the right hand. It can be interesting to find things in the score that are new, and I understand the temptation to do so when dealing with such an oft-played piece, but the problem with doing so as often as Gerstein did was that middle voices are not structural to the framework of the concerto, and he often got lost in the weeds.

    From an emotional standpoint, things are more subjective. I guess there is no such thing as “right” or “wrong,” but to me I did not get the sense that Gerstein understood the gravity of the work. I felt like moments in the second movement which are just incredible gems – emotional treasures that should be valued and heartbreaking and examined – were rushed through without a second thought. And in the third movement climax, I felt like it was traditional russian street music as if played from a street organ. I wanted to dance, not cry. Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto should not make me want to dance.

    I guess what I was most disappointed by was that when hearing a pianist and the orchestra play this concerto, whatever the pianist’s actual background, we need to believe certain things about it. We need to believe that he or she has suffered, has lost, has persevered, and has spent time in the most vulnerable of places. And we need to believe that as a result of that foundational experience, they have built a framework of how they view the world through those lenses. A good performance is a profound occasion that should leave audience members affected for the rest of their lives.

    Instead, I merely wanted to dance. And cry – but for the completely wrong reasons.

    • A comment at such considered length deserves being shown more widely. Obviously different people’s experiences of the same music/performance can vary and I note that the one other review of this concert I have seen appears to agree with Rafael and not you. Thank you, S&H

      • Thanks Jim. As a serious pianist, I think I have the curse of having studied many of the concertos that are commonly programmed – it is sometimes difficult to listen to another interpretation of something I have studied with truly fresh ears. Sometimes it takes me a few listens to get over the initial shock and understand what the other pianist is doing.

        This is why I tried to separate the interpretive side, which I am admittedly biased towards my understanding of a work, with the technical side – which I do have a deep understanding of. I feel qualified to speak intelligently on these things as someone who does play Rachmaninoff concertos; as such, I don’t really put much stock in what audience members comment on technically. I have completely flubbed concerts before and the audience didn’t notice a mistake and loved every second.

        Frankly, I think that’s a huge problem with our culture right now. I literally cannot remember the last time I went to a concert without an enthusiastic standing ovation. How come there are never any bad reviews? It’s either a lack of knowledge or that people are afraid to appear offensive.

        Cincinnati is particularly bad as there is a lack of professional critics. When there is only one or two critics in town, they need to be careful of what they say. I did too, back when I was trying to make my living as a pianist.

        There is a certain freedom in not having to do that now – if it’s bad, it’s bad. If it’s great, I am eternally grateful to the performers and I’ll shout it to the rooftops.


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