Pianist Kirill Gerstein Talks Jazz, Talks & Plays Liszt and Tchaikovsky

Dec 10, 2016

Russian-born pianist Kirill Gerstein has just released a new recording of the Liszt "Transcendental Etudes."
Credit (Photo courtesy www.kirillgerstein.com)

Pianist Kirill Gerstein was born in Voronezh, Russia in 1979.  While studying classical piano he taught himself to play jazz by listening to his parents’ record collection.  He was brought to the United States at the age of 14 at the behest of jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton, in order to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston—the youngest student there ever. Eventually he returned to classical music as his main professional focus. 

I had the pleasure of interviewing Kirill Gerstein by phone a few weeks ago from a studio in New York. I asked Kirill how the extensive jazz training affected his approach to the classics. “You know, it’s definitely something that has had a strong impact—and a lasting one.  But it’s not something that’s easy to describe or trace in a direct way.  Of course, there’s something about the harmonic sense that is so important in jazz, something about the so-called ‘groove’ in jazz.”  But Kirill mostly likens it to speaking another language, and the potentially enriching effect that may have on a person, “because one may have different thoughts in that additional language. And those thoughts then inform how you think, phrase or inflect something in your original language. And I think that’s, for me, the experience with jazz. It certainly informs how I hear music, how I play whatever style of music.  But, I think probably for good reasons, there isn’t a direct way that I can point to where one influences the other.”  He feels the two genres, jazz and classical, influence each other “in a multitude of ways.”  Kirill says he still plays jazz “as a hobby, but it’s not something that I do professionally currently. Both require an incredible amount of practice and involvement, and my time and involvement is so very absorbed by the classical repertoire.  If I were to do jazz seriously, that would need to be my concentration and time investment. So it’s really problematic to combine both actively, I find.”

The reason Kirill’s agent set up this interview was to promote his newest classical recording: a set of the complete Transcendental Etudes of Liszt,  twelve monumentally difficult solo piano works that are often excerpted and played individually in concert and on recordings.  But Kirill Gerstein sees them as far more of an integral “cycle,” more closely related to each other, than that “every-man (or piece)-for-himself” approach might suggest.

“I think in many ways,” he told me, “it’s how you present them as an interpreter. And if one accentuates that ‘every man for himself’ quality, then actually they may even take away from each other.”  He is convinced it wasn’t mere convenience or coincidence that the twelve pieces were published together as a cycle. “I think they are a cycle, these twelve pieces. I think there are many links and cross-links and reasons for the order of the pieces that makes them, as a listening experience, come together as a cycle that has a definite beginning, middle and end, and has its own sort of inner logic and coherence.”

As an example, he says, the twelve Etudes are grouped in pairs of one major-key piece and one minor-key piece—a tradition that dates back at least to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. “But emotionally and mood-wise and sound-wise and speed-wise, they are very often pairs. So the first and second ones, you have this (short) Preludio and the second Etude, that definitely feel like a group. Then you have the next pair: the Pasyage, number 3, which is like a lithograph of a landscape, foretelling Impressionism.  And then you have this large-scale ‘symphonic poem’-like Mazeppa (Etude No.4). And so you have this fast and furious Mazeppa paired with a lyrical, and rather miniature, ‘painting’ of a landscape.

“Then skipping ahead, there’s the number 9, Ricordanza, which is kind of Liszt out-Chopining Chopin himself and showing that he could write these kinds of bel canto lyrical figurations. And then you have number 10, the Appassionata in F minor, which you could say is the ‘active’ side of this reminiscence-like coin. So you have the more lyrical and the more passionate version of that mood.  And even the last two, number 11, the Harmonies du soir or ‘Evening Harmonies’—you have these evening bells, the depiction of this summer-evening sunset with bells ringing, and it’s in D-flat major, a very warm ‘temperature’ of a harmonic key. And then you have number 12 (Chasse-neige), the snowstorm, so the very opposite of the warmth, and kind of the whole piece and the whole cycle being finally obliterated in snow—everything is buried in white. 

“So these ‘pairs’ are spread throughout the cycle.  And then of course the pairs themselves ‘talk’ to each other and can be grouped in larger units. So finally, I do think there is a very strong arc that emerges from these twelve pieces and the order in which Liszt put them together.”  The entire cycle takes more than an hour to perform, and listening to Kirill Gerstein’s performance one really does get a sense of coherence and continuity as the twelve Etudes progress—exactly the effect for which he was striving. “I’m delighted if that comes through,” he told me.

Kirill Gerstein made headlines in 2015 when he released the first recording on CD of Tchaikovsky’s original version of that beloved warhorse, the Piano Concerto No.1 in B-flat minor. Well, not the absolute first version: that dates from 1875 and never really saw the light of day because Tchaikovsky’s mentor, the formidable Russian pianist and educator Nikolai Rubinstein, absolutely savaged the work, prompting Tchaikovsky to revise it four years later. It’s this 1879 version, which Tchaikovsky often conducted in concert before his death in 1893, that has recently been published by the Tchaikovsky State House-Museum and Archive at Klin, Russia (site of Tchaikovsky’s country home)—and that Kirill Gerstein plays on his CD released in 2015. There was a further revision by the composer late in 1888, and still more by an unknown editor—“most likely a student of Tchaikovsky,” says Kirill—that appeared after his death in 1893.  It’s that “posthumous” version which is most familiar to music lovers today.

After hearing Kirill’s recording (which we have played here on KSMU), I would say the 1879 version of the concerto presents what you might call a “kinder, gentler” view of the music. There really aren’t many changes, but they are significant—and easily noticed if you’re familiar with this famous work.  The alterations made to the score, says Kirill Gerstein, “were not clearly outlined by the publisher, and so the whole situation became rather murky. This posthumous version adds a certain amount of superficial brilliance, but also takes away, I think, a lot of the lyricism of the piece, a lot of the flexibility, and a certain depth of sincere feeling from the piece.”  He says he’s heard from various music lovers who say, “Well, you know, the Tchaikovsky is a nice piece, but it’s so... ‘sportive’ and showy and a bit shallow.”

One might even call it bombastic in places: for example, right at the very beginning, when the piano first enters after a short orchestral introduction.  As Kirill Gerstein describes the well-known post-1893 version of the Tchaikovsky, “the piano enters with these humongous chords. But these huge, as-loud-as-you-can-play-them chords are only in the posthumous edition.  What Tchaikovsky wrote were chords that were arpeggiated, meaning not played together—the notes are rolled, sort of like a harp effect. And that immediately makes even the opening melody that’s played in the strings more flexible, more phrased, more lyrical.” In Kirill’s opinion, the 1879 version comes closer to the spirit of Robert Schumann—“much more inspired by the quirkiness of Schumann’s lyricism than kind of a ‘Soviet,’ ‘Olympic,’ ‘sportive’ element that so often comes through in the recent performance tradition. So the idea is to go back to what the composer himself wrote. And I sincerely do believe that what the composer wrote is better than what the editor changed.”

Why were these editorial changes made in the first place, and why were they thought necessary by whoever made them?  Kirill Gerstein tries to give the unidentified editor the benefit of the doubt to an extent. “Well, I think to give some excuse, it was in some way the spirit of the time and the idea that if a performer thinks (a piece) has gotta have a little more ‘flash,’ then he has the license to change it. In this post-Lisztian canon of works, that was the (general) idea: ‘Well, the pianist can just make changes.’” But as Kirill is quick to point out, few if any musicians have ever considered (or dared?) to make comparable virtuoso-oriented editorial changes to, for example, a concerto by Brahms. “And, I think unfortunately (in the case of Tchaikovsky), the changes are just not very good!  I also think we live in a different time, when we are more interested in what the composer originally put down on paper.”

But this project was never what Kirill refers to as “an archeological mission,” born of “Historically Informed Performance” zeal, “to play whatever Tchaikovsky wrote just because that what the composer wrote! But when comparing the posthumous version and Tchaikovsky’s own, I do feel that the differences all speak in favor of the composer’s own version. I think they are better aligned to the musical message of the piece, and I think the brilliance is (already there) in the musical content and doesn’t need the additional bombast that was brought in by the editor.  And that was the opinion of many in Tchaikovsky’s own circle.  There’s a wonderful letter from 1912 from a very close associate and student of Tchaikovsky, Sergei Taneyev, who wrote, ‘It’s high time to go away from the editorial changes that have been made to the concerto, and to finally play what Tchaikovsky himself wrote.’  That was 1912; and it took until 2015 to have the definitive Critical Edition from the Tchaikovsky Museum & Archive in Russia, and to have it clarified as to what in that piece is by Tchaikovsky—and what isn’t.

“This historically-informed research is also all about the goal of having a living, breathing interpretation of a piece of music. And I do think in this case, the more we know, and more accurate information that we have, the better. I find it fascinating that we aren’t talking about the origins of a piece that’s 400 years old—we’re talking about something that was written in 1875! And still, how quickly these origins become obscured, and there are layers of tradition and layers of perpetuated misprints and misunderstandings. And so, it’s wonderful to have access to the sources and to be able to go back to these as a musician and to examine them.”

Another example of what Kirill is talking about comes at the end of the piece, during the piano’s final solo cadenza.  In the usual version we hear, it becomes a riot of alternating left-hand/right-hand octave leaps. In the 1879 version, the pianist plays what amounts to a sort of slow trill, an alternation of two notes within the same octave. Again, the effect is far less flashy, heaven-storming and bombastic—and far more lyrical.

Now, having said all this, is Kirill Gerstein sort of a solitary voice in the wilderness in his championing of the 1879 Tchaikovsky Museum Critical Edition of the First Piano Concerto? Not only did he make the first CD of the Critical Edition, he’s been playing it with various major orchestras since 2015.  He’ll give the New York premiere with the New York Philharmonic early in February 2017.  He says the Critical Edition is slowly but surely picking up other supporters. “I’m very happy to report that there are more and more pianists playing it, and more and more orchestras and conductors interested in doing this version. There’s somebody else in Russia who’s been playing it in concert; and I know that there are a number of pianists that are either on their way to playing it or considering to play it.” 

We probably won’t see the post-1893 version go away any time soon—it’s simply too deeply entrenched, after more than 120 years, as one of the most popular piano concertos in the world.  But Kirill Gerstein would certainly like for more people to consider Tchaikovsky’s own thoughts on the music.

Both the Tchaikovsky and Liszt recordings are available on the Myrios Classics label (www.myriosmusic.com). The Tchaikovsky disc features the German Symphony Orchestra Berlin conducted by James Gaffigan, and also includes Prokofiev’s Concerto No.2.  (You may find that the Myrios website lists their catalog of recordings as being “sold out”... perhaps that’s true as far as ordering directly from Myrios, but the recordings are definitely available from the “usual” online CD retailers.)

For more information visit Kirill’s website, www.kirillgerstein.com. And there’s a great article that he himself wrote regarding the differences between the versions of the Tchaikovsky First Concerto at the New York Review of Books website: www.nybooks.com/daily/2015/03/09/real-tchaikovsky/.