Wonderful to see Kirill Gerstein again in solo recital at the Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Komitas, Kaprálová, Janáček, Scriabin: Kirill Gerstein (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 4.10.2021. (CC)

Kirill Gerstein at the Wigmore Hall

KomitasSeven Armenian Dances (pub.1925)
DebussyPage d’album (Pièce pour le Vêtement du blessé, 1915, pub.1931); Elégie, L. 138 (1915); Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon (1916/17); Berceuse héroïque (1914); Étude retrouvée (1915)
Vítězslava KaprálováApril Preludes, Op.13 (1937)
Janáček – Piano Sonata 1.X.1905 (‘From the Street’)
ScriabinVers la flamme, Op.72 (1914)

The Armenian composer known only as Komitas (the name he took on ordination as a priest; his birth name was Soghomon Soghomonian) trained in Berlin; he can be viewed as an ethnomusicolgst in the manner of Bartók, transferring his native Armenian folk music to the medium of the piano (he held a similarly strong interest in Armenian church melody). Komitas indicates various indigenous instruments in the score as references for the pianist, including tambourine, drums, reed pipes, flutes and bells (this last particularly in the fifth). Kirill Gerstein is not alone in championing Komitas’s music – the great Grigory Sokolov is another pianist who has featured Komitas in performance.

The parallel with Bartók is perhaps inevitable, and in Komitas’s sparse writing perhaps there are other points of contact. The flavour of the music, though, is different from the Hungarian and Romanian music Bartók sought to preserve; at times it seems to waver between folk and ecclesiastical in its modal basis. The music has an artless simplicity, as one might expect, but in Gerstein’s finely hewn performances there were clear suggestions of deeper emotions at work. The sheer care with which he performed these pieces was particularly noteworthy, giving the music space to breathe, and, indeed, to resonate. Avoidance of traditional full cadences (indeed, the final dance almost seems to end suspended in mid-air) and augmented seconds in the scales give the music a timeless feel; added to which, some of the music itself, rhythmically, seems to veer towards the atemporal. The set lasts around 20 minutes, more than enough time to immerse oneself in this fascinating language.

A handful of rare Debussy followed, starting with the short but exquisitely formed album leaf Pièce pour le Vêtement du blessé, published in 1931, quite a contrast to the darker Élégie. Any pianist could be forgiven for ‘recognising’ the beginning of Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon, Debussy’s final piano composition only discovered in 2001. Written for a coal merchant (coal was in short supply, so its arrival was an occasion for gratitude and a particular Parisian coal merchant had ensured the Debussy abode remained warm), it begins in the same manner as ‘Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir’ from the first book of Préludes before moving off on its own explorations. The Berceuse héroïque is quite a Janus-headed piece, oscillating between the lullaby and the march. Composed in 1914 in memory of Belgium’s King Albert I and his soldiers, it stood in high contrast to the swirls and arabesques of the Etude retrouvée, discovered by Debussy expert Roy Howat in 1977. It is seen as the first version of the penultimate of Debussy’s Etudes, ‘Pour les arpèges composés’. Gerstein’s Debussy performances were often luminous but just as importantly his sound adjusted to the mood of each miniature beautifully. This set of Debussy pieces also linked nicely to Gerstein’s programme last Autumn, where he performed the twelve Etudes to an empty hall (review click here). Both Komitas and Debussy were affected by catastrophes (war and genocide respectively), and Gerstein sees them as in close emotional alignment.

Wonderful to see some Vitěszlava Kaprálová here, her April Preludes of 1937. The first’s rather Impressionistic opening, a beautiful link to Debussy, almost instantly morphed into something more identifiably Czech (Kaprálová was born in Brno). If the first Prelude could be characterised as a Czech version of Debussy’s ‘Minstrels’ in its light demeanour, the second, an andante, seems almost Gershwinesque in its harmonies at times. How wonderful that one could have guessed the ‘semplice’ aspect of the third movement purely by listening to Gerstein’s performance, revealing a piece of guileless simplicity whose harmonic turns nevertheless hint at deeper matters at hand before the sprightly finale, sharply characterised by keen accents, rounded off the set.

The Kaprálová led to probably the best known of the works on the programme, Janáček’s Piano Sonata 1.X.1905, ‘From the Street,’ and in memoriam for a young man killed in protests. The two movement titles hint at the flavour of the music: ‘Foreboding’ and ‘Death’. Performances of this piece are unjustifiably rare, and Gerstein presented it as the masterpiece it is. The music should be unsettling, and indeed it was, all couched in Janáček’s highly individual piano writing. How beautifully Gerstein allowed the descending phrases to droop, how lamenting were the melodies, how disconcerting the insistent staccato ‘comments’ on the musical discourse, how charged were the trills. A powerful performance. As the second movement moved inexorably towards its poignant close, one had to wonder where it could go. The answer came with Scriabin: Vers la flamme, a seminal work that explores the very extremes of tonality and treads its way into atonality. Gerstein’s performance was emotionally powerful. Time for one encore: Kurtág’s Les Adieux (in Janáček’s Manier), from Book VI of Jatékok, which heard after Vers la flamme invoked a post-Scriabin world cast within that Webernian brevity that is so characteristic of Kurtág: the perfect encore.

Wonderful to see Gerstein in solo recital after his wondrous Schumann Piano Concerto towards the end of this year’s BBC Proms (review click here). Gerstein returns to the UK in late October, when on the 27th he will play both Ravel Piano Concertos with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Kevin John Edusei; in the interim he plays the piano concerto written for him by Thomas Adès in Paris and St. Louis.

Colin Clarke

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