LISZT: Sonata in B Minor; SCHUMANN: Humoreske in B-flat Major, Op. 20; KNUSSEN: Ophelia’s Last Dance – Kirill Gerstein, piano – Myrios Classics MYR005, 65:30 [Distr. By Allegro] ****:
I specifically requested this disc, my having reviewed Russian pianist Kirill Gerstein (b. 1979) in concert–playing precisely the Liszt B Minor Sonata–at San Jose’s Beethoven Center this past April 30. The two large pieces rather dispel the notion that after Beethoven keyboard composers could not accommodate large forms; and in each case, these are in fact Liszt and Schumann’s tributes to a sustained series of affects or “humors,” as Schumann tended to conceive his 1839 exploration into his own creative psyche.
Gerstein’s approach to the Humoreske lulls some of the softest tissue from his Steinway D274 that I have encountered, an immediately intimate setting (marked Einfach, “simply”) into which Schumann’s Viennese composition’s four large episodes fall with a maximum dynamic range of contrasts rendered by Gerstein. Drooping figures prevail in this relatively melancholy piece, with canonic episodes rampant. Gerstein maintains the soft touch even when Schumann indicates “very fast and light,” the mercurial mood swings likely an indication of Schumann’s personal distress over his beloved Clara Wieck.
The martial elements–Schumann’s ubiquitous maerchen or fairy-tale marches–no less convey a sense of troubled fancy, a poetic impulse groping for a cause. An Intermezzo inhabits the middle of the creative arch, at first a sanctuary (Einfach und zart, “simply and tenderly”) for Eusebius, Schumann’s dreamer, then a bell-tolling episode of perpetuum mobile. Even more distilled is the Innig (Inward) section which suddenly accelerates in a contrapuntal three-hand effect–tension that alternates with the drooping intimacies stated earlier. The Immer lebhafter energies–ever-spirited in bravura fashion–lead to a series of pomposo chords that transition to the final Zum Beschluss (In conclusion) that more often than not harken to the composer’s falling figures in the Davidsbuendler Tanze. All these many affects and moods have been nobly and brilliantly delivered by Gerstein in liquid pristine sonics, courtesy of Stephan Cahen.
Oliver Knussen’s Ophelia’s Last Dance derives from a 2010 commission from the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival specifically for pianist Gerstein. The melody originated in the projected 1974 Third Symphony by Knussen. A number of dance impulses and tone clusters attain a sense of unity in a loose rondo form. Gerstein here delivers the world premier recording. The playing has color, nuance, sensitivity in music that remains essentially tonal and emotionally accessible, especially in the more bluesy figures.
Gerstein spoke–in our brief interview in San Jose–of Liszt’s conscious decision to follow late Beethoven as a model for his 1853 B Minor Sonata, especially the idea–equally traceable to Schubert–of a constantly evolving melodic curve, a transformation of an initial theme by virtue of its inner character. In this sense, Gerstein referred to the B Minor Sonata as “Beethoven’s 33rd.” Two opposing forces compete in a Manichean struggle, but the basic harmonic concept remains within B Minor and B Major. That the music’s often dark declamations and tumultuousness can assume the pose of pellucid water spouts becomes dazzlingly clear and poignant in Gerstein’s masterfully balanced rendition, which does not beg off from absolutely stentorian and titanic applications of fff. Describing himself as “half-German, half-Franciscan friar,” Liszt projects much of his own demonic pacifism into this Sonata, which knows only ecstasies of bliss or infernal torment. The lovely Andante sostenuto section of the Sonata finds a natural poet in Gerstein, who milks the music’s capacity to see Romeo cut into pieces and placed among the stars. The Dionysian fugue and Herculean energies that surge the music forward no less receive their dramatic due, as “symphonic” a realization as one emblazoned and embattled keyboard can produce.
— Gary Lemco