Review: Kirill Gerstein Opens Symphony Center’s Beethoven Sonata Celebration

Kirill Gerstein opened the Symphony Center’s Beethoven sonata celebration on Sunday. Photo by Marco Borggreve.

In celebration of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven in the 2019-2020 season, Symphony Center Presents is bringing in leading performers to play all 32 of his piano sonatas. The celebration started on Sunday afternoon, when Kirill Gerstein performed several lesser heard Beethoven works.

Along with symphonies and string quartets, Beethoven wrote piano sonatas during all three phases of his composing career. They document the progression of his music, starting with the classical forms he inherited from Haydn and Mozart. By the middle period, early experiments had morphed into expanded sonata forms and broader musical dimensions that allowed previously unheard levels of feeling and emotion. In the late period his music went even further into uncharted territory. By that time, the old classical forms had become practically unrecognizable, and he had revived several archaic forms and traditions.

Musically the piano sonatas run the Beethoven gamut. While some of them, especially in the early period, are rather mundane, several are masterpieces, and a few reside amongst his greatest artistic achievements. Several have achieved lasting fame, but mixed in are infrequently performed gems that are worthy of greater attention. Whatever the case, all 32 of them are of musical interest, and the opportunity to hear each of them in a single concert series is a rare and special treat.

Photo by Marco Borggreve.

Kirill Gerstein started the Beethoven sonata celebration on Sunday with works mainly from the early period. Gerstein, who turns 40 later this month, is an American pianist born in the former Soviet Union, but now living in Berlin. On Sunday his playing generally shunned the exuberance one might expect from a younger performer. While moving at times, it was not always polished or engrossing. It sometimes seemed under rehearsed. He also appeared to be performing not from memory, but from music on a tablet that rested just inside the piano; it was hard to tell from the lower balcony seats.

Gerstein’s lack of refinement showed up in the first work on the program, Piano Sonata No. 2 in A-major, op. 2 No. 2. This piece, one of the first three sonatas Beethoven published, demonstrates experimentation in the opening Allegro vivace, which goes to the moody key of e-minor for the secondary theme and has an extended middle section. Gerstein’s playing was choppy, and he missed several notes of a run in the first section that was corrected in the repeat.

However, in the second movement, a slow Largo appassionato, where Beethoven explored new levels of expressiveness, Gerstein reproduced the feelings very well. He also charmingly played the dainty melody that opens the finale. He was able to capture emotions throughout the sonata, notwithstanding occasional missed notes and uneven playing.

For the second work, Piano Sonata No. 16 in G-major, op. 31 No. 1, Gerstein accomplished something special. He gave a pleasant performance of music this reviewer does not like. Following a short melodic run played by both hands, Beethoven turns to a gimmick in the opening Allegro vivace: quickly repeated chords that, straddling the measure and beat, keep the emphasis on the beat. It does not help that the melody created by these chords is rather dull. As Beethoven typically does, he fashions the whole movement out of these musical kernels, as well as those provided the by the secondary theme. Gerstein’s playing seemed to settle down, and he showed great care in the lengthy runs each hand plays separated by an octave in the middle section.

Kirill Gerstein played a little-heard gem on Sunday. Photo by Marco Borggreve.

The second half of Sunday’s concert opened with a fun-filled, frolicking piece that suffers from the consequences of being sandwiched between two titans. While Sonata No. 22 in F-major, op. 54, is wonderful, attention invariably focuses on the two bookending sonatas that are among Beethoven’s greatest creations: Waldstein and Appassionata. While not as emotionally intense or engrossing as the surrounding works, op. 54 is still a joy to hear. Moreover, being at the start of his middle period, it represents a near total, structural break from anything that preceded it, starting with it only having two movements.

Strangeness occurs right from the beginning with the opening movement. While in the waltz time to be expected with the In tempo d’un menuetto label, it has little resemblance to a minuet or anything else. What it does have is starkly contrasting sections that Gerstein beautifully captured. It opens quietly with a simple, plaintive melody that devolves into loud, rapidly moving octaves and chords played staccato by both hands. Gerstein showed off a delicate side with the opening themes and a powerful technique with the octaves and chords.

For the Allegretto finale, however, Gerstein shunned the opportunity to display the fireworks that this movement allows. Here, some youthful exuberance would have been welcome. It starts with a quiet section marked dolce, or sweet, and Gerstein nicely respected this, but he maintained this restrained feeling throughout, even when the score calls for loud playing of staccato chords similar to those found in the opening movement. He also took it at a slower pace than one usually hears. When he finally broke out at the speeded-up ending, it was too little, too late.

Gerstein next performed another oddity in the Beethoven canon, a short Sonata in g-minor op. 49 No. 1, one of two published together that the composer himself marked Leichte Sonaten, i.e., “easy sonatas.” It is always interesting to hear a pianist of Gerstein’s ability to approach an easier work, and he offered a nice rendition, extracting all the feeling one can get.

The final work on the program—though not of the concert—was Sonata No. 4 in E-flat major, op. 7. Beethoven thought highly of this work and published it as a stand-alone opus, an unusual practice at this time in his career. Indeed, it does reflect a level of maturity over the other works he was writing in the thematic development and compositional approach.

Kirill Gerstein encored an unexpected treat: Beethoven’s Eroica Variations. Photo by Marco Borggreve.

Gerstein gave it a nice performance. He captured the varied feel of the building blocks Beethoven used to craft the opening Allegro molto e con brio. The moving opening chords were followed by light fingering of the higher melodic episode, and the handoff of the melody to the left hand was seamless. He later gave a ribald feel to the secondary themes that close the opening section.

Particularly interesting in this sonata is the third movement, an Allegro that does more than straddle the minuet dance world of Haydn and Mozart with the scherzo concept that would become a Beethoven hallmark. The theme is especially lovely and developed, and the moody middle section offers a dramatic shift in outlook. The rondo finale is similarly mature in thematic material and striking mood shifts. Gerstein handled both beautifully, carefully reproducing the melodies and dramatic contrasts.

After receiving a nice ovation, Gerstein offered an encore that was more than just a brief concert coda. Sticking to Beethoven, he gave a feisty rendition of a 25 minute work, the 15 Variations and Fugue in E-flat major, op. 35. It is always a treat to hear these so-called Eroica variations. Beethoven originally used this theme to conclude ballet music for The Creatures of Prometheus, but the theme shows up in the finale of his Third Symphony, which carries the Eroica name. This was some of Gerstein’s most polished playing of the afternoon. When the last notes sounded, the concert really did come to an end.

The Symphony Center’s Beethoven celebration continues with Rudolph Buchbinder playing eight sonatas, including Appassionata, which many regard as the very best, over two concerts on Wednesday, November 6, and Sunday, November 10. On March 29 and March 31, 2020, Sir András Schiff will be performing nine sonatas, including the Moonlight sonata. Later in the season, Evgeny Kissin, Igor Levit, and Maurizio Pollini will play the rest of them, and Mitsuko Uchida will be performing that late period Bagatelles and and the Diabelli Variations.

Other Beethoven-focused concerts at the Symphony Center included Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis playing violin sonatas on January 22, 2020, and Emanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos, and Yo-Yo Ma playing piano trios on March 2, 2020. Meanwhile, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has already started performing all nine symphonies and will resume this effort February 20-23, 2020, with the Second and Fifth Symphonies. Information about tickets can be found here.

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Louis Harris
Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world.

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