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Kirill Gerstein performs Mussorgsky and Schumann on his second solo release

Pianist Kirill Gerstein
Pianist Kirill Gerstein
by Marco Borggreve, from Gerstein's Web site

Two weeks ago myrios classics released Imaginary Pictures, its second solo album of pianist Kirill Gerstein. For some of us, this was quite a wait, since the first solo album was released back in 2011 in conjunction with Gerstein having been named the 2010 Gilmore Artist. The new recording couples two extended suites for solo piano, the first by Modest Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition, and the second by Robert Schumann, the Opus 9 Carnaval.

One might take issue with the accuracy of the album’s title. Mussorgsky’s suite does, indeed, depict an imaginary tour of an exhibition of the work of the artist and architect Viktor Hartmann, some of whose pieces Mussorgsky owned. Alfred Frankenstein supposedly identified seven Hartmann pictures that show up in Mussorgsky’s suite; but, because most of Hartmann’s work has been lost, we do not know whether the remaining pictures in the suite had “real” or imagined referents.

Schumann, on the other hand, was more specific, although some of his references were encrypted. Frédéric Chopin is there by name, as is Niccolò Paganini, while Clara Wieck (as she was when Schumann composed Carnaval) is there as “Chiarina.” The two sides of Schumann’s character are also there in the consecutive “Eusebius” and “Florestan” movements. On the other hand there are also many references to the stock characters of commedia dell’arte, as well as Schumann’s fictitious society setting aesthetic standards, the Davidsbund.

One might thus say that in neither case are all of the pictures “imaginary” but that the music entails a “flight of the imagination” triggered by either the pictures themselves or their subject matter. This distinction, however, should not impact the listening experience, which is the primary “order of business” for this new recording. In this respect what is particularly striking about the Schumann interpretation is the breadth of Gerstein’s dynamic range. Like Schumann himself, the music is a roller-coaster ride of sharp mood swings; and when Gerstein swings into the soft dynamics there is a delicacy to his statements of thematic material that suggests the fragility of Schumann’s own mental state. Gerstein is also particularly good at holding off the other extreme until the final movement, when what begins as a triumphant march of the Davidsbund becomes riotously destructive in a reprise of the Animato theme from the opening movement. The Mussorgsky interpretation similarly requires holding back the full force of dynamic strength until the final movement in which the piano builds to the intensity of a full orchestra (notwithstanding the efforts of those who prepared orchestrations of this music).

Thus, while both selections are likely to be well known to those who are acquainted with the piano repertoire, Gerstein has definitely put his personal stamp on them with unique interpretations that will probably provide the listener with new perspectives on music assumed to be familiar.