A delicate power: The return of the poet of the piano

Kirill Gerstein has been described as the poet of the piano and he is currently on tour for Musica Viva Australia.


Jun 17, 2024, updated Jun 17, 2024
Kirill Gerstein, the poet of the piano, is currently touring for Musica Viva Australia : photo by Marco Borggreve

Kirill Gerstein, the poet of the piano, is currently touring for Musica Viva Australia : photo by Marco Borggreve

How do you tell a serious classical pianist that you can’t attend his concert because you are going to a Jerry Seinfeld show? Kirill Gerstein is okay with it though.

“That sounds great,” he says. “Maybe I can come with you?”

Not sure Musica Viva Australia would be happy with that since he has tour commitments for them. But Gerstein, who was born into a Russian Jewish family in the Soviet Union and left Russia at the age of 14, knows his Seinfeld. In fact, he remembers being in New York when the last episode aired on television.

“The streets were empty because everyone was watching it,” he recalls.

Gerstein is touring for Musica Viva Australia right now  and has ahead of him concerts in Newcastle, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth.

A jazz-turned-classical pianist who won the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition at just 22, Gerstein has been heralded by The Guardian as “a peerless performer “who possesses both an “uncanny delicacy and a gnashing power”  according to The New York Times.

Carving out a formidable career as a major international soloist, Gerstein is the sixth recipient of the Gilmore Artist Award. He has appeared with the world’s finest orchestras from the New York Philharmonic to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and will feature as a Spotlight Artist with the London Symphony Orchestra during the 2023-24 season.

For this offering, Gerstein will draw upon his unimpeachable technique to perform works by Liszt, Schumann, Poulenc, and Chopin. Opening the program is one of Chopin’s last great piano works, his Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat major, with works from Liszt’s powerhouse Polonaise in E, Mehldau’s Après Fauré No. 3: Nocturne, Poulenc’s Three Intermezzi and concluding with Schumann’s Carnival of Vienna.

Also featured is the world premiere of beloved Australian composer, Liza Lim’s Transcendental Etude. The work has been commissioned for Musica Viva Australia by the Hildegard Project, supporting the development of chamber music by female composers.

“I think it’s necessary that there’s a work by an Australian composer in the program,” Gerstein says.

This diverse program explores the transformation of different genres during the 19th and 20th centuries, as they are filtered through the creative imagination of some of the greatest composers for the piano.

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Gerstein has been described as a “poet of the piano” and he does agree that there is a connection between music and poetry.

“Music and poetry are perhaps the closet of the arts,” he says. “Poetry has meaning but often the meaning is different to different people. That is even more pronounced with music but in a way, no-one knows what it means.’

Which leaves plenty of room for interpretation.

Musica Viva Australia’s artistic director Paul Kildea says he is excited to bring national audiences a program he describes as “eccentric, wonderful, a celebration of virtuosity and musicality by an impossibly virtuosic player who makes everything look easy”.

The globe-trotting Kirill Gerstein, who is based in Berlin, says he loves visiting Australia (this is his fifth or sixth visit, he can’t quite remember which) and is happy a concert tour that was initially postponed due to the pandemic could now go ahead. It gives him a chance to visit a country he has become fond of.

“I don’t have a lot of time but I do like to explore places and take in the local flavour,” he says. “And I do enjoy the culinary scene in Australia.”

Kirill Gerstein in recital for Musica Viva Australia – Concert Hall QPAC, Brisbane, June 19; Adelaide Town Hall, Adelaide, June 20

For more tour dates …

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