Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Wigmore Hall, London

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

This concert – launching Kirill Gerstein’s “Busoni and His World” Wigmore series (the next recital is in March) – made the most of a first half in which he introduced familiar/less-familiar Busoni offerings covering the years 1907 to 1920, supported by a page of elegant programme notes from Erinn Knyt (University of Massachusetts). Before long however, weighted bass registers and sonorous rooting notwithstanding, I began to want an improved dynamic range, a more tinted, less one-dimensional timbre. In her notes Knyt referred to the “mystical and subdued” nature of the Carmen Sonatina (No.6), drawing attention to connections Busoni himself had earlier made with Don Giovanni. A certain enigmatic mood surely came across (ending not least), yet faced with famous tunes Gerstein, reading from a tablet, seemed oddly reluctant to engage, embarrassed even. I looked for curvaceousness and caprice in the Habanera section but found myself only too often slipping into a psychoanalyst couch scenario. The late Toccata – comprising a linked ‘Preludio’ (based on a motif from Die Brautwahl), ‘Fantasia’ (quoting the Duchess of Parma’s aria from Doktor Faust) and ‘Ciacona’ – juxtaposes a complex working out of material with generous shades of Bach, the Baroque (the piece is prefaced by a misquotation from Fescobaldi: “One does not reach the end without difficulty”) and Liszt, including a last-throw dice in the direction of the ‘Dante Sonata’. Plenty of volcanic pianism, Gerstein machining the notes hard if prone here and there to over-stating the music’s sectionalism. In those paragraphs calling for it, I’d have welcomed greater contrapuntal conversazione. Curtaining out light and line can make for blandness.

Liszt’s Transcendental Studies (1851 version) were disquieting. Gerstein’s played these before at Wigmore Hall, in May 2015. And he’s recorded them for Myrios Classics. In my 2017 review of the latter [] I noted his comment that these twelve landmarks of the repertory “can too often be played too loud, too fast, with too much noise.” Why then succumb? “Finesse and intimacy,” I wrote, “rarely comes into the reckoning. More than once he falls foul of ‘too much noise’. His Steinway stays the course but the tone is hard, the dynamic range comparatively unvaried, and the aural onslaught relentless (‘Mazeppa’, ‘Eroica’, ‘Wilde Jagd’). Post-1950, third-generation ‘studio’ Lisztians like Kentner, Cziffra, Bolet or Berman needed no telling that tackling such music at consistently full tilt will rarely if ever be the best way to get its message across – pianistically, expressively or stylistically.”

This latest outing touted macho projection, few dynamic subtleties, monochromatic voicing, and a messier error rate than expected. Pumping iron, he grabbed at the peaks, plunged into ocean trenches, stormed the puissance fences, his priorities focussing loosely on shoulder weight, gymnastic octaves and unforgiving attack. Mazeppa the man of legend who loved another’s wife, lashed naked to a wild unbroken stallion, whipped and sent galloping across the plains, east in the eye of the rising sun “flying with the winds […] like a globe of fire”, would not have been a pretty spectacle. Nor was Gerstein’s. Years ago I remember Ruth Nye showing how Arrau, her teacher, would emphasise the many different ways you could spread a broken chord in Liszt. Correspondingly, how one could shade dynamics, characterise a texture, create keyboard colour, tell a story. Gerstein seemed oblivious to the wealth of possibilities before him, equally to long-term phrasing. It surprised me that the expressive turn at the start of the (post-introduction) melody in ‘Ricordanza’ – small maybe but important to Liszt from his very first childhood sketch (1826) – could be quite so summarily dismissed. ‘Vision’ – Busoni’s “funeral of the first Napoleon advancing with solemn and imperial pomp” – touched more interesting territory. Venturing to explore regions below mezzoforte, ‘Harmonies du Soir’ had its moments. Not enough though to redeem the hour.

For encore, audience clamouring, Bach-Busoni’s G-major chorale-prelude ‘Nun freut euch, lieben Christen gmein’. Blustering mechanicals, rushing-for-a-train, stabbed out melody. Horowitz’s, Sokolov’s legato? Samson François’s balanced clarity? Busoni’s 1922 London recording? Forget it.

Video of last night’s Wigmore Hall recital: Kirill Gerstein plays Busoni and Liszt.