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Surveying Rachmaninoff

Surveying Rachmaninoff

As pianist Kirill Gerstein prepares to perform all five of Rachmaninoff’s piano and orchestra works with the Minnesota Orchestra in 2020, he examines this extraordinary collection of music with Alison Young, sharing its power, personality and his “private personal favorite” concerto, in this feature article by Alison Young.


“There’s a certain Pavlovian happiness in the muscles when I play Rachmaninoff,” pianist Kirill Gerstein tells me by telephone from his home in Berlin. “Let’s not lie about it, I think we’re all after pleasure.” This March, Gerstein and the Minnesota Orchestra begin a survey of all five works for piano and orchestra by the Russian-born composer-pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff—the four piano concertos plus Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

Aside from being a pleasurable experience, Gerstein feels he has an obligation to share his enthusiasm for all things Rachmaninoff. “It’s sort of like when you love an author. If you love a writer that has written one book, but you know that there are also four others that are different in many ways but similar in spirit and have the same attractive qualities, then why not present the other ones.” With concerts spaced apart beginning this March and May and extending through next season, this Rachmaninoff survey will be a slow, intense burn.

A Russian-born American, pianist Kirill Gerstein (pronounced GER-stine) is a familiar face to Minnesota Orchestra fans, most recently in a thrilling set of performances of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto in March 2018. When I ask him about this “climbing Everest” monster-of-a-piece, he isn’t certain he wants his musical experience compared to that tragedy of brightly clothed amateur mountain climbers trapped in long queues on the world’s highest mountain.

Yes, he says, the piece is difficult. Only a pianist with spectacular technique can manage the emotional, musical, neurological and physical demands. But “to blame Rachmaninoff for virtuosity in his music would be like blaming Shakespeare for his large vocabulary.” And besides, Rachmaninoff's technical difficulty is not simply a form of because-it-is-there showing off for the sake of showing off. On the contrary, it’s the very language he needs to express his ideas. What is difficult, Gerstein says, is to play all those notes in an elegant manner, rather than as we often hear it played, “like a vodka-soaked sailor swaying about, and nothing against vodka.”

After we both laugh, Gerstein shares his method for embodying the proper approach to this music and that is to listen to Rachmaninoff’s own performance recordings. “It’s playing that’s almost severe. It’s aristocratic, with refinement and taste, and always with authentic emotion.” The word that comes up again and again when Gerstein speaks about playing Rachmaninoff is “noble.”

‘Nothing Jaded or Routine’

Interestingly, Rachmaninoff himself considered his Third Piano Concerto to be straightforward. It’s the Piano Concerto No. 2—which Gerstein will play with the Orchestra March 13, 14 and 15—he found more daunting and “awkward” for the soloist. Gerstein agrees that while it may be shorter and not the same wall-to-wall fireworks, the second offers many challenges, not the least a requirement for conductor, orchestra and soloist to develop a “common frequency of thought” about rubato, phrasing and transitions. This concerto is closer in style to the music of Tchaikovsky and “possesses an innocence and purity. The emotions are raw and need to be caught in the moment, all coming together like à la minute from the kitchen.” Gerstein assures me that if everyone manages to do his job on the Third Concerto, the piece almost plays itself, while the Second requires concentration and a kind of alchemy to bring it into existence every time it’s played.

Of course, this demands collaborators that not only have great facility, but also something extra that goes beyond technique—a full commitment to making great music. “One of the recurring sensations I have when I play with the Minnesota Orchestra is basking in the atmosphere of working toward a musical goal. There’s nothing jaded or routine and it’s palpable in the process and in the result. There’s a real effort to make things the best we can.” This attitude is unique in orchestras and one Gerstein says he never takes for granted.

Collaborating with Osmo

While Gerstein has played numerous times with the Minnesota Orchestra, his May appearance will be his first opportunity to make music with Music Director Osmo Vänskä, a conductor he admires and shares much with by way of musical taste and musical friends; until now, their globetrotting schedules have kept them from playing together.

On that May 14, 15 and 16 program is the quirky and brilliant Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini plus the less-often heard Piano Concerto No. 1. Rachmaninoff wrote his First Concerto at the age of 18 while still a student. He heavily revised it later in his career after settling in the United States, and well after he premiered the Third Concerto. Gerstein, who plays this concerto often, hopes it will eventually emerge from the shadow of the other more glamorously famous works, “If it was called ‘Concerto Number Three-and-a-Half’ it would have a much more acceptable and accepting life.”

He describes it as though an older, experienced man sees a portrait of himself as a young man. The melodic material stems from Rachmaninoff’s youth and is then conveyed through the lens of an established musician. The result is a kind of hybrid of youthful vivacity and mature sophistication.

‘Not Just an Exile’

On the other side of the spectrum is Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 4. (Gerstein returns next fall to share his interpretations of the Third and Fourth concertos.) It’s often pointed out that the Fourth possesses jazz elements, but as an accomplished jazz musician himself, Gerstein says that what makes it special is its modernist style. He calls it “tragic” and “nomadic,” the music unable to settle on its key until the final page of the first movement. “Rachmaninoff was not just an exile. The country he knew to be Russia no longer existed.”

This concerto has remained an outsider because it lacks any grand melody, which is not easily forgiven by the musical establishment. But Gerstein says that very quality is its magic. “He distills and condenses himself into this essence of what he is, to the point that so many things are not required, their presence is not necessary.” A mercurial, volatile and ultimately touching concerto, the music requires total commitment from soloist and orchestra. Curiously, these challenges may be why Gerstein calls the Fourth his “private personal favorite.”

Though he quickly adds that his intention is to make all of Rachmaninoff’s works for piano and orchestra our personal favorites, at least one-by-one as they’re performed. “They are so rich that one cannot say that everything has been said. Rachmaninoff still feels different to me on days and months of the year, so they are truly incredible in that they keep providing various possibilities when one is playing or when one is listening to them.”


A former professional flutist playing with the Boston, Atlanta and Houston Symphonies among others, Alison Young was most recently the mid-day presenter for Classical Minnesota Public Radio and the voice of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Saint Olaf Christmas, and the nationally syndicated SymphonyCast, as well as guest host of the live Minnesota Orchestra broadcasts. Today, she identifies in a variety of ways as a voice artist, writer, public speaker and a worldwide backpacker. Her trail name is Singet.

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