SSO – Kirill Gerstein

Tonight to Angel Place hear Kirill Gerstein in recital for the Sydney Symphony’s International Pianist series. The orchestra is presumably dispersed over Europe in its post-Italian tour holiday just now.

I heard KG twice (1, 2) a little over a week ago when he played with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, so I had reasonably high expectations.

The audience was modest, though, unlike the TSO’s audience, it seemed mostly a real, paying one. The principal defect of Angel Place is its meanly proportioned foyers and the consequentially incredibly slow egress from the hall if it is at all full. Tonight the foyers felt comfortable, though getting out still took a while.

The program was:

CHOPIN Fantasy, Op.49
BUSONI Sonatina No.6 (Chamber fantasy after Carmen)
BUSONI Toccata
SCHUMANN Humoreske, Op.20
TCHAIKOVSKY trans. FEINBERG Scherzo from the Sixth Symphony

For me, the two highlights were the Busoni Sonatina and the Schumann Humoreske. I love Schumann. There were so many wonderful things that Gerstein did to produce an amazingly clear interpretation. It was intelligent programming to team this with the Chopin Fantasy. Sure, there were two or three smudges in that, but as my neighbour-but-one said, she didn’t think she’d ever heard anyone play the Chopin entirely cleanly, and she has certainly been going to concerts for long enough to have heard it a few times.

One thought I had while listening to the Schumann was: why did nobody play this in the Sydney International Piano Competition? (And I don’t just mean this year’s but every year’s that I have been to.) Perhaps somebody has, and on that I am prepared to stand corrected. But over all, pieces like this are not played. I am afraid that the reason is that, although it has moments of technical difficulty, its principal challenges are interpretative. Because it is rather long, it takes time up which could more readily be used on more impressive acts of prestidigitation. The Busoni Sonatina, however, might well deserve an outing. Perhaps it is just too obscure.

The Busoni Toccata was a piece which excited (in me, at least) more admiration than sympathy: it is Busoni’s last piano work. I can only just stand the Bach-Busoni Chaconne and this was in a somewhat similar serious vein, without the historical pastiche. Still it was interesting to hear.

Since I am not a critic, I will not say anything more detailed about Gerstein’s playing. Peter McCallum, who is a critic, was there, though whether the SMH will actually publish a review by him is anyone’s guess. I meant to ask him if any review was published of the TSO’s concerts. I saw him at all three, but I haven’t found any review online. If it was in a paper edition it was in one which I didn’t see. Things are grim for newspapers these days, but their neglect of criticism seems to me a wilful neglect of what ought to be a niche role which they alone can fill, and relatively inexpensively too. It also strikes me as pretty unfair to critics, who need to attend concerts to retain their critical antennae, if their actual publication rate (and presumably payment) is reduced. Fortunately, McCallum has a day job, so far as I am aware.

The transcription of the Tchaikovsky Sixth Symphony Scherzo was one of those “built-in” encores which people often program. It was mind-boggling, even if just near the end there were a couple of points where Gerstein couldn’t quite pull it off. As my neighbour commented, there wouldn’t be many pianists who would attempt that. There was something ironic about bursting into applause at the end of this, because in modern symphonic concert practice this is exactly what you must not do. In the Symphony itself the Scherzo is followed by the Pathetique’s tragic, double-bass-sobbing last movement. Nevertheless, about two times out of three, audiences (or at least substantial parts of them) think the symphony is over, and burst into applause at this point.

As an encore, I wanted to hear Schubert’s Erlkonig again, but I didn’t have the nerve to yell out for it. Instead, Gerstein played Earl Wild’s transcription of Gershwin’s “Embraceable You.” Compared to the Tchaikovsky-Feinberg which preceded it, this wasn’t all that difficult at all – a sort of cod-Liszt, mostly on white notes – but Gerstein did play it beautifully.

Last week I caught Angela Hewitt playing Book I of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier at the same venue as part of Musica Viva’s chamber music festival. Unfortunately, coming (or do I mean going?) at the end of a three-day trial, I was too tired to do this concert justice. This is a pity, if only because it was much more expensive than Gerstein’s gig, at $85 for A reserve and $66 for B reserve. Hewitt played to a full hall – albeit with only the first two levels open. That just shows what being a well-known recording artist can do for you. For me, Gerstein, even though his program was unduly short, was much better value.

One Response to “SSO – Kirill Gerstein”

  1. Thom Says:

    Peter McCallum told me there was a TSO review. So it must have been in print only. That said, the search function on the SMH site is dodgy at best and I have often been sent links to articles which I’ve then been unable to find (or find easily) when I’ve tried to search for them in the normal way. I think it’s outrageous, for example, that you can’t put a journalist’s name in the search field and reliably bring up a list of his or her pieces. And why, for example, does a search under “tasmanian symphony orchestra” yield an article about the lights going out in the Makropulos Secret?

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