Saturday, February 8, 2014

Concert with a key

Kirill Gerstein
Rarely has a performance been curated with such subtle thematic skill as Kirill Gerstein's at Celebrity Series last weekend.

Its calling card was the Boston premiere of current wunderkind Timo Andres' "Old Friend," a kind of millennial fantasia on Chopin's Third Scherzo.  You know the Chopin - it's a dazzler split between two apparent emotional poles, one grumbling at the bottom of the keyboard, the other chiming at the top; the piece is perhaps most memorable for the sparkling arpeggios that rain over the conflicted theme that sounds at the point where the two modes meet in the middle.

Andres teases that opposition into a vast structure in "Old Friend" - but more on that later. The point I want to make now is that Andres' title unlocks the design of Gerstein's whole concert - or concert à clef, if you will. For the pianist had clearly taken Andres' insight into Chopin's scherzo as the key to his entire program, and had thought long and hard not only about the theme of "friendship" (particularly lost friendship) in life and art, but about the musical values that undergird its expression.

Hence the opening choice of Haydn's familiar Variations in F Minor. It too, of course, is a double variation: an initial melancholy voice in F minor is slowly entwined by a lighter song in F major; two "friends," if you will, of opposed temperaments. The voices dance in ever more elaborate patterns until the second is abruptly cut off, and a coda of poignant force rings down the curtain on the piece. Legend has it that this shock was inspired by the unexpected death of Haydn's friend Maria Anna von Genzinger, with whom he had struck up a passionate correspondence. And the Variations do have a sweetly epistolary quality; one voice seems to "reply" to the other almost by post. But Gerstein took that sense of distance a bit far; he played with a measured precision that came off as slightly dry - although the outpouring of emotion at the end of the affair, if you will, was genuine, and genuinely moving.

In the next offering, Schumann's Carnaval, the theme of friendship evoked in music was even more overt. For the program of Carnaval - now worked out by scholars from Schumann's notes and titles - is a cavalcade of the composer's friends, both real and imaginary, through which move two lovers, Ernestine von Fricken and Schumann's eventual wife, Clara (along with real-life musical idols like Paganini). The piece seems structureless to the uninitiated (and, well, it is!) - but there is clearly some sort of romantic showdown at its core; many believe Schumann's eventual rejection of Ernestine in favor of Clara is prefigured in its variations. But then Chopin shows up, and the party grinds on. I admit Carnaval never quite sustains my interest throughout its meandering length; but I also admit that Gerstein's version was among the most compelling I've heard.  From its opening flourish, the pianist seemed in superb control of its many voices, and even the sense of their overlapping interpenetration, and the musical haze that surrounds them.  And Gerstein carried off the finale, in which the whole artsy crowd marches out to confront the Philistines, in very high style indeed.

Hartmann's "Catacombs of Paris"
After intermission came the premiere from Andres, who delivered the most musically abstracted vision of friendship yet. Of course, this time the friend was itself a piece of music - Chopin's scherzo (rather than the composer himself) - and music about music is almost always inherently abstract. Andres basically took the most famous feature of the scherzo - those cascades of arpeggios - and doubled them, so that "Old Friend" rippled up from the bottom of the keyboard as well as down from its top, in a series of interlocking minimalist cells drawn from Chopin's harmonic material. The cells moved in and out of phase, and various points of intersection or inversion were constantly shifting - still, Andres seemed unable to transcend the limits of his schema, and the eventual emergence of the scherzo's own phrases seemed like a slight anticlimax (as we could see them coming from so very far away).

Thus "Old Friend" at times felt like pianism for pianists, a kind of giant tinkertoy - still, its construction was virtuosic, and its technical demands challenging indeed (the composer himself is an astonishingly facile pianist, and he clearly intended this as his own exploration of the grand manner - a kind of maximal minimalism!). For his part, Gerstein played its rumbling, chiming cadences for all they were worth; Andres wrote the piece for him, and he had to have been pleased with this performance.

Finally, galloping after the premiere came one of the great keyboard warhorses - Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. If you're wondering at the friendship connection here, recall that the paintings in question were by a close friend and artistic associate of the composer - the architect/artist Viktor Hartmann. And in keeping with the slightly funereal theme of much of the concert, these famous tone poems were intended as both valedictory and obituary; for the exhibition that Mussorgsky evokes (and which included works from his own collection) was, tragically, a posthumous one, as the artist died of an aneurysm at the early age of 39.

Hartmann's "Great Gate" of Kiev was never realized.
I always make it a point to recommend that concertgoers who are only familiar with Ravel's celebrated orchestration seek out a performance of the original score (preferably in its first form - as here - rather than Rimsky-Korsakov's corrected edition). It's not often heard, as its demands are punishing, particularly in the final two "pictures," but it is an eye-opener. Perhaps inevitably, the dazzling color of the Ravel somehow spectacularizes, and perhaps even slightly de-personalizes, everything in Pictures; certainly on the keyboard, for instance, it is far easier to limn the shifting response of the "Promenade" theme as it moves from vignette to vignette.

Although of course the viewer of these pictures eventually seems to step right into them; his voice first materializes deep within "Catacombs" - where perhaps he is calling to Hartmann himself - before later opening out into its own apotheosis in "The Great Gate of Kiev" (the artist's sketch for the project, at left) - which in a way is both a gate to Heaven, through which we can imagine the artist's spirit soaring, and a portal into the deeply Russian artistic consciousness that Mussorgsky and Hartmann dreamed of together.

To be honest, I felt that Gerstein was finally tiring a bit as the bells chimed their welcome in "Great Gate," but it hardly mattered, as so much of his performance had proved so very exciting (perhaps it's worth noting at this point the pianist's own Russian roots). Just a few highlights were the subtly singing line of "The Old Castle," the note of tragedy sounding beneath "Goldenberg and Schmuyle," and the haunted murmur of "Con Mortuis in Lingua Mortua." This was truly a masterly performance of a masterpiece, so no wonder the crowd called the pianist back for an encore. Gerstein chose Rachmaninoff's Op. 3, No. 3, "Mélodie," - a last nostalgic bouquet, simple and sweet - and perhaps meant for yet another friend cut down too soon. 

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