Friday, October 2, 2020

Wigmore Hall, London

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

With a restricted audience and modest early viewing figures (swelling within hours, however, to five times the capacity of the hall) this recital by Kirill Gerstein – Soviet-born, American-naturalised, Berlin-based, classico-romantic-jazz crossover – offered plenty to challenge intellect, imagination and pianistics.

Learning Debussy’s Études has been his ‘lockdown’ project this past summer, just as writing them was Debussy’s in 1915, faced with the outbreak of war, the loss of friends, and the predicament of his health – he died less than three years later. “Vibrant, colourful, multifaceted” art, we were told, “in the French and Russian understanding of the word, studies in perspective and subject” as much as technical application. An enduring “homage” to Chopin (to whose memory they were dedicated), “a sublimation and escape from intense physical and mental suffering” (Robert Schmitz). Here and there one will find Prélude-like images, perfumes of sound, but all is like in a dream, nothing is specific. The landscape of their background wasn’t Paris and the city but the dunes and pebble beaches of Normandy looking out across the “tantrums”, the grey and blue waters of le Manche. Monet country. Translating their place, mood and light defies words. Analogously, though, Volker Weidermann’s Summer Before the Dark: Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, Ostend 1936 comes close. Gerstein negotiated his way with care and detail, developing intensity as he progressed. Occasionally his touch was smothered (the quieter the incident, the greater the risk), his pianism pushed (No.12). But his painting and allusions in Nos.3, 6 (“pretentious mademoiselles … envying scandalous laughter”, the composer noted), 7, 8 and 11, his nuanced signoffs, left their mark. Not a crude sound anywhere.

Hans von Bülow, Liszt’s former son-in-law and the pianist who gave the first public performance of the B-minor Sonata, famously called Brahms’s First Symphony “Beethoven’s Tenth”. In the same vein Claudio Arrau, Liszt’s spiritual “grandson”, dubbed the B-minor Sonata “Beethoven’s Thirty-Third”, invoking Bülow’s “New Testament” canon of thirty-two. Likewise Gerstein – while missing the opportunity in his introductory words (no programme notes these pandemic days) to draw structural/textural parallels with Schubert’s ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy and the early nineteenth-century ‘sonata quasi una fantasia’ tradition. As with his Debussy, his B-minor began rigorously, near symphonically – the “DNA of the first page” driven home – before easing then tensioning into an overview combining poetics, diablerie, theatre and final heavenly ascent. Not all was comfortable or cleanly co-ordinated (some heavy-weather octaves and strained body language), the grandioso moments read/rushed through more than meaningfully/climactically delivered. A tendency to bluster and over-emphasise, to turn the semiquaver passages into facile lightweight glitter, to hammer out the chordal declamations in some Loki forge, to so belligerently tackle the fugal ‘scherzo’ left me uneasy. But the emotional repose and restrained thoughtfulness of the Andante sostenuto (ordinariness of rhythm notwithstanding, bars 415-52) was welcome. Good, too, to hear that final secco ‘Arrau’ B at the very end, formally balancing the whole aural start of the journey.

The most pedalled, ringing sound of the evening was reserved for the encore – Komitas’s indelibly beautiful Shushiki from Vagarshapat (Etchmiadzin) and Unabi from Shushi (Nagorno-Karabakh), Nos.4 & 2 of his six ‘lockdown’ Armenian Dances dated Constantinople 1916, published in Paris in 1925. Music, Gerstein reminded the audience, “particularly poignant and meaningful today when Armenia is faced with much the same dire existential problems as a hundred-and-five years ago.” Komitas (1869-1935), admired by Debussy and, together with Spendarian, as central to Armenian identity as Bartók and Kodály were to Hungarian, never recovered from the atrocities of 1915, losing his mind. Soulful playing, human warmth to the fore.

Efficient BBC Radio 3 engineering. Close-up camera work, overhead shots included.