Gerstein brings distinctive artistry to Rockport program

July 11, 2016 at 11:07 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Kirill Gerstein performed Sunday at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival  Photo: Marco Borggreve

Kirill Gerstein performed Sunday evening at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival. Photo: Marco Borggreve

Of the many genres in classical music, the fantasy, or fantasia, is certainly one of the most curious.

A genre dating to the Renaissance, the fantasy captures the spirit of instrumental improvisation and a freedom of expression unfettered by traditional formal design. Yet in the written form the fantasy preserves that expression for posterity. It is at the same time both of the present and the past.

The pianist Kirill Gerstein, in his recital at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival Sunday evening, made select pieces from the genre into an entertaining program. The recital explored the ground between the fantasy and sonata through works by Beethoven, Goehr, and Liszt.

The Russian-born Gerstein is an ideal pianist for such a task. At age 14 he entered the Berklee College of Music to study jazz piano. Further study at the Manhattan School of Music set him on another path, and he has since become a classical pianist of the first rank. He commands an extraordinary technique and a tone of plush gold, and his playing, particularly when it comes to rhythm, retains a sense of freedom.

That was especially prevalent in Gerstein’s performance of Alexander Goehr’s Variations, Op. 93, at the Shalin Liu Performance Center. Commissioned by Gerstein in 2010 and premiered by the pianist last summer, the ten-minute work takes as its inspiration Haydn’s Variations in F minor/major for piano.

This “Homage to Haydn”—the subtitle of the piece—is a fantasy in all but name. It unfolds in an edgy, searching, modernistic language that retains Haydn’s characteristic wit. Central to the piece are a host of gestures. A short, sidewinding figure, a percussive motive, and cascading notes that stop as suddenly as they begin twist about the keyboard. Through it all, Gerstein played with delicate touch and a firm sense of the musical line to make a strong case for the work.

The fantasy element was also apparent in Gerstein’s performance of Beethoven’s two Op. 27 piano sonatas. Entitled “Quasi una Fantasia,” both the E-flat major and C-sharp minor works, the latter popularly known as the “Moonlight,” explore non-traditional forms of piano sonata writing. Gone are the standard first movement forms that state, develop, and restate themes. Instead, Beethoven crafted freer movements that unravel the themes in an instantaneous fashion.

Gerstein’s Beethoven is more delicate and nuanced than most pianists’ interpretations. His touch is full without being forceful and he shaped the repeats of the thematic material with slight push and pull to the tempo to good effect. The Scherzo of the E-flat sonata was smooth and connected, with Gerstein emphasizing Beethoven’s percussive left-hand hits with bristling power. The golden-laced lines of the third movement sounded with hymn-like solemnity.

Gerstein found the depth and mystery in the first movement of the “Moonlight” Sonata, the lines glowing with amber tone. The second movement had the feel of a gentle dance, while the furious statements of the finale seemed to spring from the piano’s murky depths.

There may be no greater romantic composer who captured the spirit of improvisation than Franz Liszt. Gerstein performed two sets of the composer’s works with select Transcendental Etudes and the darkly lyrical Sonata après une Lecture de Dante.

His performance of the Dante Sonata was both thoroughly dramatic and poetically expressive, with the pianist in firm command of the piece’s blazing orchestral-like textures and mesmerizing pyrotechnics. The opening fanfare, built around the tritone or “devil’s tone,” sounded with stark power and the ensuing statements were given a searching and dramatic weight. Gerstein is a foremost Lisztian and he played the rapid descending octaves and oscillating passages between right and left hands with aplomb. The second theme, articulated in the piano’s upper register, seemed to look heavenward as it glowed in the distance.

Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes have a bad reputation for their bangy, showy quality. But it takes a fine pianist to find the music hidden just beneath the surface.

Gerstein is such a musician. His playing of these supremely difficult works had a poetic sensitivity to match the technical fireworks. The swirling lines of the Ninth Etude were played with a delicacy and rhythmic freedom, while the phrases of the Tenth swelled into passages of raw fury, Gerstein all the while playing with precision. The Twelfth Etude was at times dreamy and at others a feeling of swirling intensity, colorfully evocative of the piece’s subtitle, “Snowscape.” The Eighth Etude was a study in wild exuberance.

Rapturous applause brought Gerstein back onstage twice for bows. No encore was offered, but after such brilliant playing, none was needed.

The Rockport Chamber Music Festival concludes with Chanticleer performing “Over the Moon” 5 and 8 p.m. July 22 at the Shalin Lin Performance Center. rockportmusic.org; 978-546-7391

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