The Duke Performances piano recital series continued in Baldwin Auditorium Nov. 9, with Kirill Gerstein playing a well-considered program that began delightfully and progressed toward the sublime. Gerstein’s warm sound, his joyous, jazz-inflected explorations and unguarded emotionality–as well as his thundering power and silken delicacy–made this one of the most satisfying piano concerts of my experience.
Gerstein began with a late piano work by Josef Hadyn, the Variations in F Minor, Hob. XVII: 6, from 1793, a piece whose emotions are barely controlled by its clever interlacing musical structures. The image that came to mind was that of a dark red briar rose restrained by the delicate tendrils of a twining clematis vine with its froth of pale flowers. The minor theme shaded from melancholy to grief, near the end pulsing with rhapsodic sorrow; the major theme with its many trilling decorations on a calm orderly trellis brings us back to acceptance and peace, if not joy.
That Gerstein excels in generating imagery from sound was confirmed by his performance of Robert Schuman’s fantastic Carnaval, Little Scenes on Four Notes, op. 9, from 1834. The twenty short tone-pictures and dances that make up Carnaval are all over the map, but generally are quite animated. By the end of the final “March des ‘Davidbündler’ contre les Philistines,” I felt I’d spent an evening drinking in the sights at a marvelous fair amid crowds of Commedia characters, artists, waltzing lovers and fast-moving butterflies, all resplendent with color. Some of the sections are well known, but I’d never heard the piece performed entire–it is thrilling. Section 11, “Chopin” (Agitato) provided a connecting point to the program’s first work after intermission.
Old Friend, by Timo Andres (b. 1985) received its world premiere with, strangely, no fanfare. The old friend of its title is Chopin’s Scherzo No. 3. Andres, commissioned by the Gilmore Piano Foundation, wrote it for Gerstein (who won the Gilmore Artist Award in 2010). Although it contains what Andres calls “the skeletal melody” from the Chopin work (see his blog for his own writing about the writing of Old Friend), the main impression received from first hearing is that of sizzling energies following their own courses–like the the motions of particles within an atom. It would clearly take a virtuoso to play this. It begins with right and left hands moving towards each other from the extreme ends of the keyboard, but then they must cross and re-cross, the sounds tangling and re-ordering themselves. Speeding and slowing, clashing and harmonizing, the music tumbles along in increasing complexity, before spreading out like a quiet little wave. The piece is not very long, but you come out of it feeling like you’ve journeyed across the galaxy and back.
So, after that abstract adventure, we go to Pictures at an Exhibition, the grand 1874 work by Modest Mussorgsky, which is about as pictorial as music can get. In the spring of that year, Mussorgsky had helped organize a show of works by his late friend, Victor Hartmann (see images of the pictures here); he then composed a musical record of the experience of seeing them in exhibition. There are ten pictures, and the promenade that opens the work repeats three times between groups of paintings, and is reprised in the finale, “The Great Gate of Kiev.” I’ve listened to this music so often that I can hardly go to a museum without hearing it as I traverse the galleries, and I’ve heard it performed more than once (most recently by Leif Ove Andsnes), but I’ve never seen the pictures with such clarity and color. They were so full of life! I think Gerstein’s jazz training gives his interpretation a vivacity that other versions lack (this holds for the Schumann piece as well). This liveliness was particularly notable where it is most needed, in (5) “Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells;” (7) “Limoges: The Marketplace;” and (9) “Baba Yaga.” The wild energy of the witch with her crazy cackling gives way to the rich large sounds that build the “Great Gate of Kiev,” and the whole exhibition winds up with resonant grandeur.
I didn’t think there could be an encore after that, but following repeated ovations, Gerstein returned to the piano and gave us an exquisite goodnight: Rachmaninoff’s Melodie Op.3 No.3. So lovely. We will hope for a Rachmaninoff recording, and a return engagement at Duke by this pianist of prodigious technique and passionate expression.