Kirill Gerstein

Musica Viva Australia Kirill Gerstein photo by James GrantIt’s not difficult to see how Russian/American pianist Kirill Gerstein, has earned himself an international reputation as the poet of the piano. Gerstein grew up playing jazz, but switched to classical and won the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition at just 22.

Celebrated for his formidable technique and idiosyncratic phrasing, Gerstein has the ability to make even the most terrifyingly difficult compositions look like ‘piece of cake’. He demonstrated this gift frequently in his Canberra recital as he worked through a delightfully varied repertoire of compositions by Chopin, Mehldau, Faure, Poulenc, Liszt and Schumann, including among them one of the world premiere performances of Transcendental Etude by Australian composer, Lisa Lim.

He commenced both halves of his program with compositions by Frederic Chopin. Leading off with the Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat Gerstein looked and sounded perfectly relaxed. His hands fluttered over the keyboard as if he was simply warming up, trying out different ideas while searching for a way into the piece. Not to suggest that he was in any way hesitant because his playing was at all times authoritative and commanding. .

Following the Chopin, he took the time to address the audience, noting that although this was the first time he had played in Canberra, he had been to the city previously to visit composer Larry Sitsky. When he and Sitsky were discussing the work of composer, Gabriel Faure, they discovered that they had a mutual admiration for the work of Grammy-Award-winning jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, who was also influenced by the work of Faure.

This discovery led him to include in his program Mehldau’s short composition, Après Faure’ No.3 Nocturne (2024) as an intriguing prelude to Faure’s already programmed Nocturne No 13 in B minor.

Francis Poulenc’s Three Intermezzi FP71/118 proved a delightful contrast to the rather morose and mysterious Faure, and Gerstein seemed to revel in the change of pace and mood, before returning to another polonaise, this time Franz Liszt’s glittering Polonaise in E major to end the first half of his program.

Gerstein chose Chopin’s stirring Fantaisie in F Minor, Op.49 to commence the second half of his program. His relaxed demeanour and obvious enjoyment often appeared at odds with the technical demands of the work. Indeed he appeared to be singing to himself as he tossed off the virtuosic runs.

Australian composer, Liza Lim’s Transcendental Etude is an abstract, Avant garde response to the freedom movement and protests led by women and girls in Iran expressed through musical ‘tearing up’ and ‘knotting of time’. The work makes huge demands on both performer and audience alike, but this premiere performance was rewarded with an enthusiastic response by the audience, particularly when the composer took to the stage to congratulate Gerstein.

Gerstein then returned to the piano to further thrill his audience with a dazzling account of Robert Schumann’s Carnival of Venice, Op 26 in which every facet of his stunning virtuosity was on show. In response to the excited response of the audience he capped of an already memorable concert with two generous encores, Fritz Kreisler’s Schon Rosmarin and Chopin’s Grande Valse Nouvelle in A flat.

Kirill Gerstein
Llewellyn Hall, William Herbert Place, Canberra
Performance: Thursday 13 June 2024

Presented by Musica Viva Australia, Kirill Gerstein continues his solo recital tour to Newcastle (14 June), Sydney (17 June), Brisbane (19 June), Adelaide (20 June) and Perth (23 June). For more information, visit: for details.

Image: Kirill Gerstein – photo by James Grant

Review: Bill Stephens OAM