Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
I think for me, music and the piano emerged from the fog of my earliest memories because the piano was always in the house for as long as I can remember. My mother was teaching in a music college but also at home, so in that sense the piano, and especially music, were always there. It started as a sort of game with my mother: that was the trigger.
As for this whole music “career” business, I didn’t know until I was about 10 or 11 that I adored the piano. I loved music more than the instrument to begin with and then the love of the instrument came at a later stage. So I knew I wanted to do something with music but not whether I would or could be a concert pianist. But from about the age of 10, I switched to a better teacher and all of a sudden I had this tremendous interest in the instrument. Then I won a children’s competition in Poland and one thing led to another…
I can’t point to an earth-shattering moment when I knew “this is what I want to do” – it was more of a gradual, organic process.
Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?
The most significant teachers (and this is not to do any disservice to other people from whom I received advice) and musical influences would be Dmitri Bashkirov with whom I studied in Madrid, and Ferenc Rados, who I studied with in Budapest, and wherever else we would meet. Those two are really the most significant musically speaking. But then I have received a lot of inspiration and ideas from Andras Schiff, for example, and Alexis Weissenberg, who, when he was still alive, gave me some very important impulses. Then there are conductors, like Semyon Bychkov, who have given me a lot of inspiration and advice, so I must say I feel very fortunate. It’s always been purposeful, because I seek out these people to learn something from them and that has been incredibly fruitful and stimulating. But when thinking about music and playing music, Bashkirov and Rados have been the most significant.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Well let’s start with the fact that music is difficult and the piano is a bloody difficult instrument to play! On the one hand it’s challenging, but on the other hand, it’s what keeps it so incredibly interesting and vital to continue, otherwise life would be terribly boring. Playing music on an instrument with one’s body is an extremely challenging occupation. Then there’s the fact that as an instrumentalist, you are forced to reflect on everything inside yourself – psychological limitations, fears, advantages, disadvantages. So staring at your reflection day in day out with such great intimacy and with the purpose of self-improving is also a challenge but is one that I nevertheless love and think is a great way of reaching a better understanding of oneself.
Other challenges include not allowing oneself to be distracted by the so-called “business” of a musical career and everything that that entails, to maintain a good level of mental and spiritual energy, trying to improve every day, learning new repertoire, getting better, and so on.
I think this balancing act is quite hard. And as everybody knows, the so-called “music business” is challenging because it comes with a lot of hurdles, but at the end of the day, it’s not the most significant thing in the world. To keep the soul in balance is a challenge, but generally balance is difficult to find in life! And what is important to know is that this balance is ever-changing.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
Eclectically (!) which I think is important and also in some ways purposeful. It has to start with something that deeply interests me: for example, the Transcendental Études are an interesting challenge for myself but one that I hope I can make interesting for audiences too because it’s not just for me.
It also comes from particular personal interests. I hate programming that looks like “Oh here’s another piece I learnt so let me play that for you”, so eventually there needs to be some kind of coherence or connection or inner logic which isn’t necessarily musicological or historical. This then influences what I choose, what goes well with what, a bit like making a menu… Alexis Weissenberg once said to me, “nothing betrays the personality of the pianist better than the way he puts together his recital programmes and the height of his stool at the instrument” and I think there is some witty wisdom in that comment. Especially in the case of concertos, less so with recital repertoire, I’ve been quite open to external impulses or suggestions from a conductor. There are a number of concertos I would not necessarily have thought of learning but then you fall in love or become intimately associated with the piece. So I enjoy external influences in that sense. But essentially I don’t agree to do anything that I don’t like or can’t believe in.
What is the special fascination of Liszt’s Transcendental Études for you?
It’s multi-faceted: I think Liszt is a great fascination because as modern pianists we owe the majority of our musical and pianistic lives to him in the sense that he has shaped our hands through the pianistic advice he has created, and he influenced the majority of what is played since his time. Everything that came later – Busoni, Rachmaninov, Debussy, Prokofiev – is the result of everything that Liszt came up with during the 20-25 years he was occupied with the Transcendental Études in their various incarnations. So the Transcendental Études are the Everest of piano literature, but also a distillation of Liszt as a pianistic experience. But obviously we owe him far more than the pianistic experience: there are the musical inventions, without which we would not have Wagner, Strauss, Mahler, Debussy, Busoni etc. There’s also the whole business of performing recitals as a soloist which we owe largely to Liszt – as Busoni said, “Liszt is the tree and we are all branches of that tree.”
It’s also a personal project. I wanted to take the “Transcendental Études journey” in order to self-improve through working on it and pursuing it as a cycle as I don’t think it is a random collection of 12 studies. It’s also of course so much more than a technical journey. Arthur Friedheim, an important student of Liszt, said something like “I had the privilege and honour of walking in the footsteps of the great” and I think the sentiment relates to Liszt, and essentially all the other great composers that we play. We get to follow in the “finger steps” of these great minds and spirits that have walked the keyboard, and in that sense it’s really a tremendous experience to be in touch with history in this way. But it’s not just a question of digging archaeologically; it’s about making the music, and therefore history, alive again so it can be felt in the air until it dissipates. This is one of the great privileges of being a performer. When playing Liszt, it’s the most amazing experience when you let him take over your hands, body and mind.
Having said that though, this wasn’t the intended outcome. When I started studying the Transcendental Études a year before I recorded them, I wasn’t certain whether I would be able to play them let alone very well. Everything began to emerge as I went further along the journey.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
There are very divergent styles of concert venues – old concert halls, such as the Musikverein, are incredible. Boston Symphony Hall is also of this kind. Those two could easily be named as favourites. Then there are the great American halls of the turn of 20th-century and the 1920s – Carnegie, Severance Hall (Cleveland), Orchestra Hall (Chicago). There are also some really excellent new venues, but they are hard to compare to the old ones because of the different mentality towards sound.
Symphony Hall in Birmingham is also wonderful, and I quite like the hall in Copenhagen and the KKL in Luzern … but it would be hard to say if I prefer a particular hall. They are all different animals and it’s wonderful to have the variety.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Generally, at the risk of sounding condescending, I do feel it’s important to share one’s experiences because they may resonate with a person who is on an earlier but similar path to yourself – and this is one of the reasons why I started teaching relatively early at the age of 26. I am not sure whether it’s possible to “impart” curiosity but it’s important to stimulate it along with a love of what we do. Love and curiosity are almost one and the same thing or at least are closely related.
The curiosity about the big and small aspects of we do – how your index finger may depress that one key, curiosity about the repertoire, the culture, what role music and art can play in our lives – these are all a big part of that. If someone is not curious, you cannot impart curiosity. But when someone is curious, I think it is our responsibility to nourish and stimulate it.
Kirill Gerstein performs Liszt’s Trancendental Etudes, together with music by Brahms and Bach on Sunday 12th February at St George’s Hall Concert Room in Liverpool. Further details here
The multifaceted pianist Kirill Gerstein has rapidly ascended into classical music’s highest ranks. With a masterful technique, discerning intelligence, and a musical curiosity that has led him to explore repertoire spanning centuries and styles, he has proven to be one of today’s most intriguing and versatile musicians. His early training and experience in jazz has contributed an important element to his interpretive style, inspiring an energetic and expressive musical personality that distinguishes his playing.
Mr. Gerstein is the sixth recipient of the prestigious Gilmore Artist Award, presented every four years to an exceptional pianist who, regardless of age or nationality, possesses broad and profound musicianship and charisma and who desires and can sustain a career as a major international concert artist. Since receiving the award in 2010, Mr. Gerstein has shared his prize through the commissioning of boundary-crossing works by Timo Andres, Chick Corea, Alexander Goehr, Oliver Knussen, and Brad Mehldau, with additional commissions scheduled for future seasons. Mr. Gerstein was awarded First Prize at the 2001 Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition in Tel Aviv, received a 2002 Gilmore Young Artist Award, and a 2010 Avery Fisher Grant.
Kirill Gerstein’s full biography
(photo: Marco Borggreve)