Exactly one week from today myrios classics will release its latest solo album of pianist Kirill Gerstein. The album, which is currently available for pre-order from Amazon.com, consists of only a single composition, the set of twelve études that Liszt called the “transcendental” études. Gerstein calls this collection “one of the most towering mountain peaks of the piano literature;” and each étude definitely “transcends” the usual conventions of normative skill at a piano keyboard. Indeed, it would be fair to say that each of these études is as “transcendent” today as it was when Liszt published the collection in 1852.
It would be the height of understatement to assert that Liszt was not shy about displaying his technical prowess at the piano keyboard to admiring audiences. The question then arises as to whether these études serve any purpose other than egomaniacal display. There is certainly no questioning that the technical challenges they pose should be undertaken by any aspiring pianist planning to make the nineteenth century a preferred “base” in building a repertoire. However, there is a difference between mastering any of these études for the sake of building technical skill and choosing to incorporate them in a concert program. In the former case the primary issue is one of muscle coordination, not only for the sake of faithfully reproducing the marks on paper but also as a base for then engaging techniques of expressiveness, which may be grounded in the practices of either the nineteenth century or the present day. The latter case, on the other hand, raises expressiveness to a primary level, meaning that the listening experience of those in the audience is just as significant as the performer’s technical skill.
Consulting my own listening experiences, I discovered that that last time I documented listening to any of these études was in May of 2012 at a Young Pianists Play Liszt recital hosted by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. It would be fair to say that this was a program of outstanding pedagogical achievements, but it would be just as fair to observe that these were the students of teachers who appreciated that expressive performance had to involve more than physical dexterity. Nevertheless, I must confess that, as a listener, my mind was primarily focused on specific finger-busting passages, waiting to see how effectively they had been mastered.
Listening to Gerstein, however, is another matter. He does not have to prove anything where technical skill and expressive interpretation are concerned, and I have been very positively impressive by the performances I have heard him give in San Francisco. Nevertheless, none of those performances involved music by Liszt. As a result I found that I could approach his new recording as a major challenge involving maintaining the attention of the listener. (Establishing that attention at the beginning is usually not a problem; the rub comes in holding it!)
Having listened to this recording a few times, I can say with some confidence that Gerstein has command of several “attention management” techniques. If we accept the premise that Liszt is given to repeating himself in these études, then it is important to note that Gerstein seems to have given sufficient thought to making sure that any repetition is given some new rhetorical twist, thus avoiding the dreaded here-we-go-again syndrome. However, this is not just a matter of pulling new devices out of a hat when necessary. To use Gerstein’s own metaphor, he convinces the listener that he understands each étude as a landscape with considerable variation in height. In this respect Gerstein plays by a rule that Pierre Boulez applied when he conducted the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, setting himself the goal of sorting out “the climaxes from the lesser peaks, so that the real ones stand out.” There are usually lots of peaks in any one of Liszt’s études, but Gerstein has clearly thought through how he wishes to convey the single climax in each of them. The way in which he creates a sense of impact upon arriving at that climax makes the performance of each of the études worth the time invested in listening to it.