If great music often bears witness to history, great performances often transcend time and place to take listeners to the emotional core of human striving. Kirill Gerstein’s generous and carefully thought out program was not only a survey of musical monuments to war, heroism and revolt; but it was a deeply involving experience that time and again drew the listener into the emotional world of the chosen composers.

Kirill GersteinKirill Gerstein. Photo © Marco Borggreve

One particularly telling example was Janáček’s sonata, From the Street, which concluded the first half of the program. Gerstein’s finely calibrated timbral control chillingly evoked the streets of Brno where the fatal protest on October 1, 1905, that inspired the sonata took place. Apart from conjuring the bleak, almost disembodied sounds of the second movement, Gerstein excelled in creating maximum tension through the slow but inexorable build-up towards the work’s painful climax.

Such a moving examination of revolt was preceded by more optimistic affirmations of heroism. Liszt’s Transcendental Étude No 7 in E Flat, S.139 was an impressive curtain-raiser in which Gerstein wedded confidence to clarity. Liszt’s use of the full compass of the piano also made it an appropriate work with which to begin the maiden voyage of the Melbourne Recital Centre’s newly acquired Steinway. The rest of the program also confirmed the new instrument’s admirable qualities, including appealing brightness in the upper register and enviable clarity at the other end of the spectrum.

The Liszt led directly into Beethoven’s rarely performed Variations and Fugue in E Flat, Op. 35, sometimes nicknamed the Eroica because they share the same theme as the fourth movement of the eponymous symphony. While Gerstein displayed his ample digital dexterity, he was more focussed on revealing Beethoven’s cleverness and determination not to be hemmed in by the conventions of the theme and variations form. Along the way there were touches of humour and moments of reverie before the expansive fifteenth variation and a crystalline account of the fugue which was delivered, as the composer decreed, with brio.

Liszt’s Funerailles, S.173 began the second half. Gerstein’s alternation of a clenched left fist followed by a vertical karate-style chop certainly allowed the opening procession of bass notes to ring out. Presenting the work as a defiant lament, Gerstein did not shy away from its rawness of emotion, even though its quieter ruminations were touchingly conveyed.

After the last, soft but unapologetic note of the Liszt came the Australian premiere of the Berceuse from Thomas Adès’ opera, The Exterminating Angel. Commissioned for Gerstein and premiered by him earlier this year, this short work is full of lush harmonies and dramatic textures, evoking the doomed love of the opera’s main protagonists. This full blooded work effectively exploited the expressive possibilities of the piano.

The Adès formed an excellent bridge to two little known works of Debussy. Written in 1916, the Élégie is a late work that sounds rather atypical of the composer, making an interesting contrast with Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon (Evenings Lit by Burning Coals), an impressionistic miniature written in the winter of 1916-17 in exchange for some coal.

Continuing to reveal his astute timing, perfectly judged expressive weight and finely honed sense of colour, Gerstein played two movements from the Seven Folk Dances by Armenian composer, Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935). These delicate evocations of folk music in a faraway place again tapped into the program’s subtext of summoning to life past emotions.

Declaring that “the dead are sad enough in their eternal silence,” Ravel dedicated his glittering but elegant Tombeau de Couperin to friends lost in World War I. Gerstein clearly loves this work and gave it a thoroughly ebullient delivery with speeds to match. The perpetual motion of the Prélude shimmered with a lightness of touch, the Fugue shone with transparency and the Forlane radiated Gerstein’s love of jazz. A fresher Rigaudon would be hard to imagine, nor would a more poised Menuet. A mercurial Toccata whose rapid-fire repeated notes put the new piano’s action to the test brought the official program to a tumultuous close.

Gerstein was certainly well placed in the MRC’s Great Performers Series. His brilliant technique never blinded the audience but always served to illuminate the music and point to the common humanity that motivates artistic endeavour. While serious when fronting the audience, Gerstein’s profile at the keyboard reveals dedication and love in equal measure. After two short but stunning virtuoso encores, Gerstein did finally allow himself to smile at the audience – as well he might, for the heartfelt applause was a sincere affirmation of his rare gifts of musical communication.