Much to ponder and much to be thrilled by from Kirill Gerstein’s Wigmore Hall recital

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Busoni and Liszt: Kirill Gerstein (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 23.11.2022. (MB)

Kirill Gerstein at the Wigmore Hall

Busoni – Elegien, BV 249: ‘Nach der Wendung’; Sonatina seconda, BV 259; Berceuse, BV 252; Sonatina no.6 super Carmen, BV 284; Toccata, BV 287

Liszt – Études d’exécution transcendante, S 139

This was a fascinating first instalment to Kirill Gerstein’s three-artist ‘Busoni and his World’ Wigmore Hall residence. Gerstein more than earned his fee, with a full first half of works by Busoni, gently and intelligently introduced from the platform, followed by all twelve of Liszt’s Transcendental Studies. He offered us much to ponder, much to be thrilled by, and much to look forward to later in the season.

‘Nach der Wendung’, first of the Elegies, takes its leave, as you might expect, from late Liszt. A questing — it is almost impossible not to say ‘Faustian’ — piece, it received a duly questing performance. Some writing is more tonal than other; Gerstein clearly communicated harmony and its implications. The quiet radicalism of its passage was conveyed with acute intelligence, whether it wandered into the clouds or down into the rumbling bass. Its introverted vision paved the way nicely for the Sonatina seconda. ‘Tonal oder Atonal?’ as Schoenberg would ask in the first of his Three Satires. Yes, no, or maybe, should probably have been the answer. Its opening bass line here strongly took a cue from Liszt, dissolving into the performing air, floating, resolidifying, and so on. Hearing material that would later find its way into Doktor Faust without the opera’s formal classicism is a fascinating experience. One senses a logic, even if one cannot define it.

The Berceuse, published separately, is the final Elegie. Gerstein took it a little faster than often one hears it: rather, I think, to its advantage. Built and moulded to considerable emotional effect, it emerged more richly ambiguous than ever. The CarmenFantasy, another so-called sonatina, brought virtuosity, even hyper-virtuosity, more strongly to the fore. Layers of music, perhaps of meta-music too, were revealed and corroded, all within the Lisztian model of the paraphrase. Gerstein captured extremely well the piece’s ruminative quality: the composer, post-opera, extemporising on its themes. It was a turbulent, even violent necromancy we heard in the Toccata, its ‘advanced’ language no bar to high Lisztian grandiloquence. One gained an impression of multiple prisms, through music one could never quite pin down. The music from — or ‘to’? — Doktor Faust (related to the strange character, if one may call her that, of the Duchess of Parma) sounded as darkly elegiac and as dangerously sulphuric as I can recall.

Brighter primary colours were to be heard from the off in Liszt himself. The opening Prelude seemed to strip away a gauze curtain we had not realised was there. Its virtuosic thrills provided quite the curtain-raiser. ‘Paysage’ offered seductive contrast, phrases beautifully leaned into. A Chopinesque — especially in the cadenzas — ‘Mazeppa’ well illustrated Gerstein’s fine command of Lisztian rhetoric: foreign to our more cynical age in many ways, and yet relished for what it is. That quality of big-heartedness took us through pieces such as the ‘Vision’ and ‘Eroica’, vividly brought to life in themselves, yet also part of a greater trajectory. So eager can we sometimes be to defend Liszt against his cultivated despisers, we can forget how fine a thing it is simply, or even not so simply, to love his music. Not that there was anything sentimental to this performance; we loved the music through Gerstein’s intellectual as well as technical command. His turning of corners, as if revealing new vistas, occasionally brought Mahler to mind. Gerstein could charm too, as in ‘Ricordanza’. A bravura tenth study brought us to the flower-like harmonic blooming of ‘Harmonies du soir’, whose darker currents and sheer strangeness — surely attractive to Busoni — were certainly not undersold. The final study, ‘Chasse-neige’ was finely etched, seemingly according to a palette created before our ears.

The encore was Bach-Busoni: ‘Nun freut euch, lieben Christen gmein’. Busoni marks it Molto scorrevole, ma distintamente. That is unquestionably what we heard.

Mark Berry

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