by Mike Telin

GERSTEIN-KirillWhat a difference one note can make. In his recent, thoroughly researched article titled Tchaikovsky’s “Wrong” Note, pianist Kirill Gerstein responds to pianist Stephen Hough’s blog post stating that Hough had made “The most exciting musical discovery of [his] life: Tchaikovsky’s wrong note finally corrected.”

Gerstein writes that Hough’s article “questioned a note in Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto…At the start of the concerto’s slow movement, the flute plays a phrase that consists of the notes A-flat, E-flat, F, A-flat. In his article, Hough admits that the F has always bothered him, because when the piano restates the melody a moment later, the theme has a B-flat instead of an F (A-flat, E-flat, B-flat, A-flat)…What if the F at the start of the movement was a mistake, and B-flat had been intended?”

This Thursday and Friday in Severance Hall, Kirill Gerstein will perform Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with The Cleveland Orchestra under the direction of Vassily Sinaisky. The program also includes Liadov’s Eight Russian Folk Songs and Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 3.

After conducting his own scholarly research into the matter, the question is: at this week’s performances will the flute play that phrase with a B-flat as Hough suggests, or an F? “I hope it’s an F,” Gerstein told us by telephone, “and if not, I will certainly mention it. I think the evidence is fairly conclusive that it should be an F.” And has the “wrong” note ever bothered him? “No. But it is something that I have noticed in the past and that is why I decided to write something. I have always felt that it was an important and nice feature of the concerto. So I didn’t doubt it before.”

Gerstein says he finds it fascinating that even with a piece as famous as Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto there is still so much to talk about when it comes to understanding the composer’s intentions. “There’s actually quite a lot to discuss in terms of textual accuracy and what the composer might have meant. We do know that the changes made between the first version and second were Tchaikovsky’s. But from the second version to the version that we currently play, it’s a scholarly question which are Tchaikovsky’s and which are not. I mean a lot of what we play as the final version today was done by Alexander Siloti, a student of Tchaikovsky, but it seems that a lot of the changes were not authorized by the composer.”

Has Gerstein ever had the urge to play the concerto’s opening chords as arpeggios as the composer originally wrote them? “I have tried the opening with arpeggiated chords on several occasions recently and it’s very nice indeed.”

What has research revealed to Gerstein regarding Tchaikovsky’s use of folk themes in the concerto? “I think one of the things that is so outstanding in this concerto is that we really can call it the first truly Russian piano concerto in the nineteenth century. Of course there were earlier examples but they had much more of a foreign influence because the composers were usually German-, French- or Italian-trained. Tchaikovsky also has those influences but I think he managed to combine the folk material and moods with a sort of Schumann-like fantasy so I think that’s also an important feature of the piece. Yes, some themes are folk themes and others folk-related and were [merely] sounds he had in his head. But scholars have decided which might descend from folk themes and Tchaikovsky himself describes where he had heard some of them. And in the quick section of the second movement he quotes a French song that was popular at the time, so there is a lot of material that is woven together.”

Gerstein says that he takes this kind of scholarly approach to all the music he plays, “I think the term ‘scholarly’ attaches a certain label but I am curious and I try to know as much as I can about whatever I play. And when those so called ‘scholarly’ questions arise I try to do my own research and consult with people who know more about it. I think it’s very important to know as much as you can about what you are playing. This includes biographical information as well as the history of a work’s performances, the different editions and the comments that great performers of the past have made. And the important recordings that have been made. In my article, I include an excerpt from the 1926 recording by Vassily Sapellnikoff who actually toured with Tchaikovsky in the 1880’s, often playing the first piano concerto. These are all things that one can learn from and that one ought to know as the biosphere of the piece.”

In his youth, Kirill Gerstein studied piano at a special music school for gifted children and in addition to learning classical music, he taught himself to play jazz by listening to his parents’ record collection. When the renowned vibraphonist Gary Burton, who was performing at a music festival in the Soviet Union, heard Gerstein, he invited the 14-year-old to study jazz piano as the youngest student ever to attend Boston’s Berklee College of Music.

Did Gerstein apply the same scholarly approach while studying Jazz as a young pianist? “I think so. I guess it’s been my general understanding that it’s always better to know more then less. And when I studied at the Berklee School I was certainly encouraged to go in a direction of styles and sounds that appealed to me. But also to know the origins of jazz from stride piano to be-bop and everything that happened afterwards. This is true in jazz and it’s true in classical music. If you play Rachmaninoff but you don’t know Tchaikovsky or Liszt and how that filtered down from Beethoven — and where Beethoven came from — then there’s a certain rootless quality to the thing. So I think it is better to have an overview of the musical language and musical history no matter what the style.”

While in Cleveland, in addition to his performances with The Cleveland Orchestra, Kirill Gerstein will also give a master class at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Since 2006 he has held the position as Professor of Piano at the Musikhochschule in Stuttgart. “The semester starts a bit later there, so right after Cleveland I’ll go back and start teaching again. I quite enjoy it. It’s another essential part of being a well rounded musician. And I think teaching is a very natural opportunity to give something back, to pass something on, and I learn very much from it. I gain a lot of insight and inspiration from the process. There is a quote from martial arts philosophy that I find sympathetic: it says that after you get to a certain level of skill you cannot progress as a student of the art unless you are also teaching it. I think there is a truth to that.”

Published on September 24, 2013

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