Review: Pianist Gerstein performs jazz, classical pieces brilliantly

Saturday, March 30, 2013
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— Russian pianist Kirill Gerstein set a new standard Wednesday night at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall with a remarkable recital that showed off not only his fabulous technique and a probing and sensitive musicianship, but his unique versatility as well. Besides being a terrific classical pianist, he is also a jazz pianist of some substance.

It’s no wonder Gerstein won the 2010 Gilmore Artist Award, a $300,000 prize given only every four years to an extraordinary pianist who can sustain a major international career. And, he’s only 34.

Because of his interest and expertise in jazz, Gerstein took some of his Gilmore money and commissioned jazz pianist Brad Mehldau to write a more than 30-minute-long “Variations on a Melancholy Theme.” Reading off his trusty iPad, Gerstein played the mellow, charming and gently contemplative first section with a sure feel for the jazz lines. The second section was busier, brighter and with more rippling scale-type work for both hands before it returned to the slower melodies. Pretty colors shimmered and the mood was soothing.

Lightest of touch

But not for long. Brahms’ hugely demanding “Variations on a Theme of Paganini” (1863), which had two “books” each with 14 variations, exploded in its intensity and constant virtuosity. Gerstein was never rushed and didn’t seem challenged despite the difficulties. His fingers flew with a marvelous lightness, his range of dynamics was subtle and his pacing was unforced. What especially impressed was how he managed to play these most complicated passages with the lightest of touch. He frequently played at soft to barely middle ranges of volume, yet every note could be heard.

It was a bravura performance and the crowd gave him a standing ovation.

Haydn’s Variations in F minor (1795) was unusual with interesting chromaticism and none of his typical sly humor. Instead, the variations were filled with a grief that even with the little flourishes and trills never really abated. Gerstein sculpted the phrases with thoughtfulness, used a spare pedal and kept the notes clean, graceful and elegant.

Better than a recording

He had plenty to do, however, in Schumann’s “Carnaval” (1830s). One of Schumann’s most inventive and challenging works, it’s richly colored with shifts in mood and technical complexities. Gerstein found his own way through the mix, especially employing his skills to find the details amid the frothy delicacies or explosions of sound that were like doors opening or shutting quickly. Better than any recording, it was just wonderful to just sit there and let Gerstein’s joy at making music wash over.

The crowd wanted more and got a gorgeous transcription of Gershwin’s “Embraceable You.” The rippling sheets of arpeggios were like waterfalls that supported the romantic melody. The crowd gave a collective sigh.

This concert was part of the Troy Chromatics Concerts series. The next concert is April 24 with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra and pianist Garrick Ohlsson.

 

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