After an eight-city recital tour of Japan with duo partner Daishin Kashimoto, pianist Kirill Gerstein gave a recital of his own at Kioi Hall, arguably Tokyo’s best acoustics for solo piano. The programme was an ambitious and challenging one; Debussy’s 12 Études in the first half, followed by an Austro-Germanic second half exploring the genre of the “Fantasie” that culminated in Schubert’s epic Wanderer Fantasy. Although stylistically, the two halves seemed like different worlds, Gerstein brought these worlds closer together through the spontaneity of his approach.

Kirill Gerstein © Kioi Hall
Kirill Gerstein
© Kioi Hall

Debussy’s set of Études, considered his late masterpiece, was composed in 1915 while the First World War raged in Europe. Gerstein has said in an interview about the recital that learning these pieces has been a lockdown project for him, and that although the pandemic cannot be compared to the war, he imagined Debussy composing these works in a similar situation of isolation in difficult times.

Under Gerstein’s fiercely nimble fingers, each étude emerged freshly minted. It may sound clichéd, but in his hands, they became living organisms. Through the spontaneity of his timing, flexibility of phrasing and rhythms, and the kaleidoscopic colours he produces, he made the pieces sound more like a set of fantasy pieces than etudes.

In the first étude (pour les cinq doigts), in particular, one felt the strong influence of Gerstein’s jazz training – it felt wonderfully capricious and almost improvised. In total contrast, the étude for thirds felt like a Monet painting of a foggy landscape, sinewy and distant, with pale colours blurring into each other. Another highlight was Étude no. 8 (pour les agrements), in which the nostalgic melody was adorned with exquisitely played pearly ornamentations. Similarly, the arpeggios in the eleventh were deliciously handled with almost jazzy freedom. A highly individualistic reading of this keyboard masterpiece.

Kirill Gerstein © Kioi Hall
Kirill Gerstein
© Kioi Hall

Gerstein opened the Fantasie-themed second half with Haydn’s Fantasia in C major (also known as Capriccio), followed by Beethoven’s rarely played Fantasia in G minor, Op.77. Both composers are so well known for their highly formalistic genres such as sonatas and symphonies, that it was interesting to listen to their less rigorous side. Gerstein leapt into Haydn’s Fantasia with exuberance and even slight impatience. A piece that combines fantasia and rondo form, he negotiated its witty twists and turns with clarity of sound. Beethoven’s Fantasia, on the other hand, shocks with the dissonance of the opening rapid descending scales. Composed in 1809, the year he wrote the “Emperor” piano concerto and the Choral Fantasy, it offers a glimpse of Beethoven’s formidable talents as an improviser on the piano. Gerstein captured the tempestuous mood of the work, meandering through various keys and tempos capriciously yet with a strong sense of underlying logic, before settling into the variation-like final section.

Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy (1822) is an ambitious work full of energy and bravura, a world apart from the introspective mood of his late piano sonatas, only six year later. It’s structurally ambitious, as he tried to link the whole piece through a recurring motif. In that sense, one could say it was the least improvisatory of the fantasies in the recital. Gerstein’s performance was full of vibrancy and forward momentum, from the symphonic grandeur of the Allegro to the tender, Lieder-based Adagio, a galloping Scherzo and culminating in the powerful fugal finale. At times, his approach favoured overall drive to technical tidiness, but it was Schubert on the grandest scale.

The “Fantasie” theme continued into the encore, where he played Chopin’s Fantasie in F minor. Poetic yet austere, here his interpretation revealed more of his Russian school roots. It was a touching end to this exploratory recital.


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