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  • Carnegie Hall Presents
  • ZH Zankel Hall
  • SA/PS Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
  • REW Resnick Education Wing
  • WRH Weill Recital Hall

Transcending Liszt, Bartók, and Bach

In advance of his performance in Zankel Hall on Monday, March 9, pianist Kirill Gerstein discusses what inspired his program of Liszt’s complete Transcendental Etudes, Bach’s Three-Part Inventions, and selections from Bartók’s Mikrokosmos.

The works on your program have a common thread: Each originated as a set of piano studies, but over time developed into something grander either through revision or practice. Is there a deeper context for grouping these works?
The program was partly inspired by the great Italian composer and pianist Ferruccio Busoni, who famously said that Bach is the Alpha of piano playing and Liszt is the Omega. This quote has long resonated with me and led me to think about the foundation of piano playing—or rather music playing on the keyboard, actually—beginning with Bach’s keyboard pieces. At the other end, Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes represent the Everest of piano playing with its many challenges. What interested me was how all the works on the program fall under the guise of instructive music. But these composers—Bach, Liszt, and Bartók—great as they are, transcended this idea and in actuality created complex works that are each great musical undertakings.

Kirill Gerstein vertical portrait piano 250x400

Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes are the meat of your program. Give us a little background on the evolution of the collection.
What I find fascinating about the Liszt etudes is their evolution over the long span of his development as a composer. There are three very distinct versions that allow us to hear Liszt as a youth, then as a young keyboard über-virtuoso, and finally as a mature master composer. On this program, I play the final version; the first version, Op. 1, was published when Liszt was only 14 years old. In this original version, the etudes are rather youthful and naïve, along the same vein of etudes composed by Liszt’s teacher Carl Czerny. But then something interesting happens: Over the span of 15 years from approximately 1830 to 1845, Liszt more or less invents modern piano technique in its entirety. A bold claim, but true! During this time, he conceives and develops nearly every device and technique of writing for the piano. The pianistic textures of Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Prokofiev, Mussorgsky, and others all grow from the seeds of Liszt’s piano writing. The second version of the etudes was published in 1838 and is overwrought with technical challenges and borders on the verge of being unplayable. By 1852, the third and final version of the etudes was finally perfected, in which the musical expression and instrumental challenges are in balance.

The pianistic challenges are just the starting point to the musical ideas of these 12 pieces. Many of the etudes possess an impressionistic spirit and, as some of the titles suggest, evoke wonder or even the world of the supernatural. No. 5 paints pictures of shimmering ghostly lights, and No. 8—“Wild Hunt”—describes Arthur’s Chase, a traditional European legend of ghostly riders galloping through a forest hunting and haunting whatever is in their way.

How do the Bach and Bartók inventions complete the picture?
The Bach inventions present a different angle on the challenges of keyboard playing. There is more to his piano music than mere instruction, and it presents a different mental challenge in comparison with Liszt. Each invention was written to familiarize the player with a particular compositional idea that Bach felt was important for an aspiring keyboard player to absorb. Amusingly, Bach displayed his practical streak by limiting the length of each invention to two pages so the student didn’t have to turn them. Bartók was a modern composer who was firmly rooted in the tradition that preceded him, and his two inventions from Mikrokosmos pay homage to the great monument of Bach.

Kirill Gerstein
Kirill Gerstein
Monday, March 9 at 7:30 PM
Kirill Gerstein

An etude can be described as a brief piece that assists in the development of a performer’s technique, but in the hands of Bartók, Bach, and Liszt, it’s a sublime musical experience. Bartók conceived of Mikrokosmos as a collection of pieces for a beginning pianist, but over time it grew into a six-volume collection of 153 pieces that span a wide range of technical difficulty. Bach’s Three-Part Inventions, part of a pedagogical collection, are masterpieces of brilliant fugal writing. Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes are devilishly difficult and reflect the composer’s astounding virtuosity.

On a very different note, you have a recording of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin being released by Myrios in the US next week. The version of the concerto on the recording varies from the famous version we all know. Tell us about it.
The third version of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto is the one predominantly performed, but Tchaikovsky himself was responsible for only the two versions of the piece dating from 1875 and 1879. The third version was published posthumously after 1894. It is this third version in which the concerto has been prevalently heard for more than a century, although it includes significant variances from the two earlier versions that may or may not have been authorized by Tchaikovsky.

Shortly after performances of the first version, Tchaikovsky decided to make some alterations to the piano writing, while leaving both the musical material and the overall structure intact. With these changes incorporated, this second version of the concerto was published. From then on, it was this 1879 version that Tchaikovsky conducted, including while on tour in America when he led the concerto in New York for the opening of Carnegie Hall in 1891. He conducted this version right up until his very last performance in St. Petersburg just days before his death in 1893. Then we have the third version, which includes the elimination of arpeggiation in the opening chords and further alterations, which I believe were fabricated by other musicians and editors.

Comparing the 1879 version with the posthumous one convinces me that the musical substance is expressed more authentically in the composer’s own score. Many examples of differing dynamics, articulations, and tempo indications in Tchaikovsky’s version point to a more lyrical, almost Schumannesque conception of the concerto. This recording is the first to use this score and orchestral parts of that version of the concerto.