Kirill Gerstein, Wigmore Hall London
Bartók Two Pieces from Mikrokosmos Book VI, Bach 15 Sinfonias BWV 787 - 801; Liszt Etudes d'execution transcendante S139 (publ. 1852)
Programming Liszt's complete Transcendental Studies is certainly not for the faint hearted. Few pianists even attempt it. Leaving aside the technical difficulty and the stamina required for an hour of some of the most demanding piano music ever written, what should the remainder of the recital comprise? When Lazar Berman performed all 12 at the Royal Festival Hall in 1976 he gave us Prokofiev's 8th Sonata by way of a warm-up. Typically thoughtful, Kirill Gerstein, the thinking man's virtuoso, gave us a first half of Bartók and Bach, a pair of Mikrokosmos from Book VI eliding seamlessly into Bach's 15 'Sinfonias', often referred to as 3 part inventions.
Both Mikrokosmos and the Sinfonias originally had an overtly educational purpose, Bartók's Micro Universe of piano music ranging from Beginner's exercises to concert pieces and Bach's 3 part Inventions having their genesis as as a kind of instructional manual in both keyboard technique and composition, stimulated by the experience of teaching Wilhelm Friedrich, Bach's eldest son. Gerstein's account of Bartók's Two Chromatic Inventions (Nos 145a and 145b) were distinguished by the extreme clarity of the part playing combined with real physical attack, both entirely appropriate. The second of the pair characteristically for Bartók is a variant of the first in the sense that it is based on the same motif but inverted and transposed.
Without a pause Gerstein dove straight into Bach's 15 Sinfonias. The juxtaposition was enlightening although sadly the inclusion of Bartok's; name on the programme 'may' have accounted for a good many unoccupied seats. If so, it was a pity because seldom can music with an educational origin have sounded less dry or academic. Gerstein has that rare ability of investing Bach's keyboard music with light and shade, and finely characterising each individual movement, for instance the gently lilting 12/8 of the C minor Sinfonia (No 2), the longer shadows cast by the tortuously chromatic D minor fantasia (No 4) or the boundingly joyous E major 9/8 in No 6. He even found a vein of sly humour in the penultimate Sinfonia (No 14) which on this occasion had a slightly tongue-in-cheek quality, almost a kind of quodlibet.
Liszt's 12 Transcendental Studies went through 3 versions, the final version performed here dating from 1852. In some movements such as Mazeppa, Vision and Wilde Jagd they seem to prefigure the preoccupations of some of the later orchestral music, for example in Mazeppa the symphonic poem of the same name whilst Vision inhabits a similar world to Nocturnal Procession from Lenau's Faust and Wilde Jagd the galloping motion of Hunnenschlact. Other movements such as Preludio or Feux Follets are more akin to technical exercises although a technical exercise with a twist in the case of the latter. The movements are arranged in pairs,one in a major key followed by one in the relative minor providing welcome contrast throughout
There was almost a Schumann-esque quality of whimsy, Gerstein's left hand particularly eloquent here and its sunburst climax carried the sort of emotional weight of that cathartic final climax in the Fantasy Op 17.Ricordanza, wonderfully described by Busoni as a "bundle of faded love letters", was magnificent in the perfectly graduated reserves of tone which Gerstein was able to unleash - few pianists have this kind of tonal resource - and Harmonies du Soir, written incidentally before Baudelaire's famous poem of almost the same name (Harmonie du Soir), was stroked into life as it were with a velvet paw. This was undoubtedly great Liszt playing, certainly in the same class as that performance referred to previously which I heard nearly 40 years ago. How lucky to have lived to have heard both. No encore was given and none was needed.