Gerstein disappoints with surprisingly sloppy Liszt in Coral Gables

By David Fleshler

KIrill Gerstein performed Liszt's complete "Transcendental Etudes" Tuesday night in Coral Gables. Photo: Marco Borggreve

KIrill Gerstein performed Liszt’s complete “Transcendental Etudes” Tuesday night in Coral Gables. Photo: Marco Borggreve

South Florida piano aficionados must have eagerly anticipated Tuesday’s recital by Kirill Gerstein in Coral Gables.

The Russian-born, American-educated pianist would play Liszt’s complete Transcendental Études, 12 works that pressed the frontiers of piano technique in the mid-19th century, the golden age of the heroic keyboard virtuoso. Gerstein’s recording of the Études made The New York Times list of best classical recordings of 2016.

So did his concert live up to expectations? Not quite.

Appearing at Coral Gables Congregational Church for Friends of Chamber Music, Gerstein gave a performance that showed lots of fire, technique and symphonic grandeur. Yet there were so many wrong notes, souring what should be sparkling lines of ornamentation, that the virtuoso impact of these works was often lost.

In the middle of “Mazeppa,” wrong notes marred the right-hand riffs that accompanied the noble melody in the bass. In “Feux Follets,” the rapid right-hand figures were indistinct, uneven and seeming to be full of effort, lacking their essential lightness and delicacy. In “Vision,” the melody didn’t sing, it blared. More clinkers came in the final Etude, “Chasse-neige.”

Yet at times Gerstein also showed why his recording of the Études impressed so many listeners.

There were bursts of extreme virtuosity, such as the downward runs in octaves in “Vision.”  And he proved able to draw a vast range of colors from the Bösendorfer grand on stage – the moments of orchestral sweep in “Vision,” the tinkling right-hand filigree that accompanied the melody in “Ricordanza,” the rumbling sonorities and evocatively played themes in “Harmonies du Soir.”

Every pianist hits a few wrong notes in the course of a recital, particularly one this demanding. Yet for works that are intended as showcases of piano technique, his performance was truly disappointing.

He opened the concert with Bach’s Four Duets, playing in a way that sounded a bit rote and mechanical, although the fugal final duet was a hard-driving and forceful.

Next came the Brahms Piano Sonata No. 2, a youthful work in which the voice of the mature composer can be heard starting to emerge from harmonies and phrases that recall Liszt and Chopin.

Gerstein played the tempestuous, Liszt-like passages in a free and headlong manner, occasionally sacrificing a clear melodic thread in favor of the raw emotional force of the music. He effectively built up the tension of the Andante to its pealing climax. But while his unfettered style expressed the emotional turbulence of the young Brahms, he didn’t bring enough rhythmic clarity and sturdiness to the clipped phrases of the last movements, playing in too light a manner the passages that sounded more like the composer’s mature voice.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Gerstein disappoints with surprisingly sloppy Liszt in Coral Gables”

  1. Posted Jan 25, 2017 at 9:13 pm by Arlene Hathaway

    I completely agree with David’s review – I mentioned my dismay at the performance to friends who did not agree with me so I’m glad to know that I wasn’t alone in my opinion, Mazeppa was butchered, sad to say, the pianist had a very strong touch and I was very disappointed in what I had hoped would be a wonderful evening of piano music.

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Wed Jan 25, 2017
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