At first glance, except for Thomas Adès’ Berceuse from The Exterminating Angel, the program that Kirill Gerstein curated for his Zankel Hall recital seemed to be centered around Hungarian-related composers and music. For the non-obvious, far-fetched connections, one could refer to Haydn's decades-long association with the Esterházy princely family and consider the utmost admiration that Liszt had for Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy, a composition he rearranged multiple times.

Kirill Gerstein at Zankel Hall © Fadi Kheir
Kirill Gerstein at Zankel Hall
© Fadi Kheir

However, listening to the small 2018-composed gem, stemming from a dialogue between two lovers in Adès’ opera The Exterminating Angel and dedicated to Gerstein, it occurred to me that the recital wasn't just on the subject of music with Hungarian or Central-European inflections. It was more about how variations on a preset theme or the interplay between musical motifs – emerging from nothingness, repeated, transformed, obviously stated or barely recognizable – can be more relevant to a musical discourse than stressing the importance of musical scaffolds, “developments” and “resolutions”. Gerstein played Adés’ tiny tone-poem with muted, Debussy-evoking melancholy and shimmering colors, emphasizing, at the same time, the music's eccentric soundscape.

Other smallish works were treated with the same exceptional level of attention to detail. The pianist fully brought forward, without exaggerating, both the oddness and the humor in the first work on the program, Haydn's Fantasia in C major, a “capriccio” marked by unexpected hunt-evoking chords and unpredictable key shifts. Brahms’ Variations on a Hungarian Song is not one of his major works, but it can become interesting to listen to if the interpreter focuses – as Gerstein did – on the rhythmic asymmetry between alternating 3/4 and 4/4 bars that the first eight variations inherited from the original theme. Three late, lesser-known Liszt compositions, based on different dance types – Ungarischer Geschiwndmarsch, Mephisto-Polka and Csárdás obstiné – were rendered with the same manic intensity. The croquis selected from the vast network of piano miniatures that György Kurtág called Játékok (Games) fitted well in the overall structure of the program. Full of whim and wit, they could be heard, in Gerstein’s hands, as conjuring both children’s insouciant activities and subtle cioranesque aphorisms.

The dispassionate approach that seemed appropriate for Kurtág wasn’t very well suited for Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy. Listening to a “different” rendition of a well-known opus usually has certain merits, but gutting the nostalgia, the sad and dreamy sweetness this music is imbued with, wasn’t necessarily a credible alternative, regardless of the mastery with which the Wanderer motif transfigurations were handled.

Overlapping – as much as Schubert’s Wandererthe realms of both “sonata” and “fantasy”, Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, was the highlight of the evening. Dispatching with ease all technical difficulties, avoiding any grandiloquent, romanticizing gestures, Gerstein underlined, instead, with purposeful clarity, the fecundating power of just a few thematic ideas, the way in which Liszt impetuously transformed a Classical structure from within, as well as all those 20th-century-announcing sonorities.

The overall freedom in treating the musical material, perceived during the entire evening, is probably anchored in Gerstein’s jazz background and the genre’s emphasis on improvisation. As one might have expected, his two encores – Bach’s Chorale Prelude on “Nun freut euch, lieben Christen, g’mein, BWV 734a, in Ferruccio Busoni’s transcription, and Chopin’s Waltz in A flat Major, Op.42 were both impeccably interpreted, at tremendous speed, and with clear disregard for any comme il faut approach.

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