By Lawrence Budmen

In the quarter century after he emigrated to the West following the Russian Revolution of 1917, Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) composed only five works. Although Rachmaninoff was a renowned piano virtuoso only two of those later scores were for the keyboard. His 1931 "Variations on a Theme by Corelli," Opus 42 is one of the monuments of the solo piano repertoire. (Rachmaninoff's other late keyboard work was the enigmatic, modernist "Piano Concerto No.4" - a score which has yet to receive a good performance in South Florida.) Based on the familiar "La Follia" theme, the daunting "Corelli Variations" was one of the featured works on a disappointing recital by the Russian pianist Kirill Gerstein on December 19 at the University of Miami Gusman Concert Hall, presented by the Friends of Chamber Music. 

Gerstein was the First Prize Winner of the 2001 Artur Rubinstein Piano Competition in Tel Aviv. A pupil of the distinguished pianist-teacher Dimitri Bashkirov, Gerstein was the recipient of the prestigious Gilmore Young Artist Award in 2002. Although he revealed a solid, fluent pianistic technique, Gerstein's performances too often veered toward cold brilliance and monotony. This was particularly true in the Rachmaninoff "Corelli Variations." Gerstein emphasized extremes of volume, his tone often turning harsh. Individual variations lacked character and expressive nuance. Gerstein seemed to have little sense of tonal coloration. For all of Gerstein's voluminous sonority, many pianistic voicings lacked clarity. The grand formal arc of Rachmaninoff's variations seemed to elude Gerstein. His version of the same composer's "Melodie," Opus 3 was overly bombastic. In two of Rachmaninoff's pianistic transcriptions of violin vignettes by Fritz Kreisler ("Liebeslied" and "Liebesfreud"), Gerstein's playing was lacking in lyricism and grace. He seemed to miss the scintillating wit in these Russian-Vienesse confections. 

Earlier in the evening Gerstein essayed Beethoven's "Piano Sonata in E-flat," Opus 7 - a seminal work in the early Beethoven canon. The opening Allegro molto e con brio was hard driven and lacked a sense of stylistic Classicism. By contrast Gerstein set a deliberate tempo for the Largo, con gran espressione that shortchanged the music's eloquence. The third movement Allegro had rhythmic urgency and power but the central thematic episode lacked character. Gerstein's unyielding approach to the concluding Rondo, Poco allegretto e grazioso missed the music's contrasts of light and shadow. Where was the score's aristocratic elegance? An edgy, unidiomatic traversal of a Beethoven masterwork!

In "Four Impromptus," Opus 90 by Franz Schubert Gerstein's playing was frequently ponderous and heavy handed. The Impromptu No.1 in C Minor sounded more like a funeral dirge than a florid pianistic soiree. The familiar Impromptu No.3 in G-flat Major lacked clarity of detail and a firm lyrical line. The Impromptu No.4 in A-flat Major needed greater sparkle. Gerstein's best playing of the evening came in his encore - a Chopin waltz dispatched with considerable brio and vigor.

Mere technical facility does not make an artist. Despite much accurate playing, at this point in his career Kirill Gerstein appears to lack the musical subtlety and burning inner fire that are the essence of true music making.

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