Kirill Gerstein certainly doesn’t do things by halves. At Wigmore Hall he took the audience through a packed programme centred around social and political turmoil – with more than a little of personal agonies thrown in for good measure. It was an ethereal, surprising and demanding evening of listening wherein performances of some works certainly outshone others, but the overall impression left a feeling of grateful, contemplative catharsis.

Kirill Gerstein
© Marco Borggreve

Gerstein, a Soviet-born American citizen resident in Berlin, played a similarly eclectic group of both works and composers obscure and celebrated. A rousing but still meditative opening came with Liszt’s Transcendental Étude no. 7, dubbed “Eroica”. Gerstein’s ease and grace with the virtuosic piece were a pleasure to behold and never in doubt, although it felt that the barnstorming recklessness which both Liszt and the piece’s nickname seem to demand was lacking. It was a sensitive performance, but one which seemed to belong more in the world of the programme’s second half.

This would prove to be the case as Gerstein performed the first of the two major pieces he had included, Beethoven’s Eroica Variations, which like the opening Liszt study are in an “heroic” E flat. Here again, the sensitive and questioning shades in the piece were sensitively read while the tumultuous and heaving spirit of the piece was left in the dark. The journey through the variations lacked a hook to keep the listener in thrall so that the piece – a miracle of grand feeling packed into a fairly short time – appeared more as a series of chopped up variations than it should.

The first half ended with a performance of Janáček’s Piano Sonata 1.X.1905 (“From The Street”). The piece was written in memory a protestor killed at a demonstration to support the building of a Czech university in Brno, and its drama and anger is insistent, quietly pulling it forward even under the aegis of Janáček’s hesitant, meditative personality. Gerstein mostly managed this balance of emotions and elements – deep, strong sonority with feather-light uncertainty – with great sensitivity, although there were times where the Sonata’s narrative seemed to falter.

The second half began with a declaration on the part of the pianist that, while the programme was centred around aspects of social turmoil, the concert was also a personal meditation and a dedication to the memory of the late Bruno Ganz, a close friend. This short introduction completed, Gerstein launched into a powerful, driving and moving second half for which the first half seemed, in retrospect, a warmup. Paradoxically, it was in these explicitly personal works, highly introspective in conception and design, that Gerstein’s heroic impulses shone most brightly.

Following another introduction by Liszt, Funérailles, which failed much to grab (although whether this is Liszt’s fault is also highly possible), the tone was set. There followed the UK premiere of Thomas Adès’ Berceuse, a solo piano reworking of music from his 2016 opera The Exterminating Angel. It was a strange, disturbing, yet deeply lyrical lullaby, muscular in its roiling sonorities and powerful, rumbling bass figures, which spoke pleasingly to ideas in Janáček's Sonata. This piece is linked in the opera’s story to a lullaby sung before a joint suicide, and the themes of mortality and isolation continued in pieces by Debussy: Élégie (1915) and Les Soirs illuminés par l'ardeur du charbon. The latter was the last of Debussy’s piano works, only rediscovered in 2001. Both gave us an introspective Debussy, in the aftermath of his failed cancer operation, toying fractiously with uncertain ideas floating freely in space, never settling. Gerstein captured this unhappy, complex pact with mortal doubts beautifully, and allowed the increasingly heavy mood to be somewhat relieved by two lovely and exploratory pieces by the little-known Armenian Komitas Vardapet. Although these two pieces (from a set of Armenian Dances published in 1925) also have a tragic origin – written while imprisoned and mentally unhealthy during the Armenian genocide – they exuded a buoyant, folk-infused urge for living. Finally, Gerstein gave an impassioned performance of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, with the cohesive drive and a gripping commitment to link each of the suite’s six movements which had been lacking in the first half. After such a full and challenging programme, so full of mortality and turmoil, Gerstein enacted a fusion of the determined and consolatory with gaping, painful questioning, for a deeply satisfying, redemptive conclusion.