He got rhythm: Piano virtuoso Kirill Gerstein embraces classical, jazz... all that is unexpected

His story began 35 years ago in Voronezh, a city in Russia’s 'black earth' region

Some concert pianists are memorable whatever they do – or don’t do – on stage.

Such is Kirill Gerstein, the virtuoso who will be the star of the opening concert of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, with his leonine grin and seemingly effortless way with the most daunting works.

The first time I heard him was in a recital where he performed an ear-opening medley of classical rarities and novelties, before winding up with his own monumental arrangement of “I Got Rhythm”, in which jazz and classical idioms fought for dominance.

My most recent sighting of him was at the Southbank, where he breezed through Rachmaninov’s towering piano-and-orchestra showpiece Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. It turned out that he’d had just six minutes in which to rehearse that 25-minute work with the orchestra: for most pianists this would have represented a hair-raising challenge. What, then, makes this Russian-American virtuoso tick?

His story began 35 years ago in Voronezh, a city in Russia’s “black earth” region, where he grew up amid a cultivated musical household; since his mother was a piano teacher, it was inevitable that she should teach him too. “I made myself her guinea pig as a way to get her attention, and for her it was a useful way of bonding with me,” he says.

“I always loved music, but I didn’t think of myself as necessarily becoming a pianist. It wasn’t the archetypal tortured childhood playing nothing but scales and Chopin études. I paid for that later, of course, by having to practice much more than other student pianists.” But he was precocious nevertheless, playing Bach and Schumann in concerts at the specialist music school he attended, and on one occasion representing a full orchestra on the keyboard. 

His parents also had a collection of jazz records, and for him this became a seductive alternative world. He aped the style of Oscar Peterson and the bebop brigade, and, when he was overheard unwinding with some jazz after winning a classical-piano competition in Poland, aged 12, he was invited to join a jazz workshop. One thing led to another, influential people kept overhearing him, and by the age of 14 he found himself studying jazz piano at the Berklee College of Music in Boston – as its youngest-ever student.

Kirill Gerstein Asked whether he felt musically torn, he replies that for him “it was all music. I’d started classical music with singing and listening, and with jazz it was the same process, even though one kind of music was written down and the other was [only] captured by the microphone. My ear was strongly developed, and my understanding of how one chord leads to another applied as much to jazz as to classical.”

For a while he pursued both disciplines in parallel, but winning the 2001 Arthur Rubinstein competition in Tel Aviv, when aged 22, persuaded him to keep jazz as a hobby. He also decided to take American citizenship, as his Russian passport caused such problems with visas that his touring schedule was getting systematically messed up.

Growing up in Russia, he always had a stronger sense of a Jewish identity – his paternal grandfather was a Talmudic scholar in a Ukrainian shtetl – than a Russian one, and he has also been prevented from putting down American roots by the piano professorship he now has in Stuttgart. Dividing his time between Germany and the US, he’s entirely comfortable as a multilingual cosmopolitan.

But what grounds him is an unusually clear sense of artistic mission. He is delighted, for example, that the work he will play in Edinburgh is not some hoary old household favourite, but Scriabin’s mystical and rarely performed Prometheus.

And he regards his teaching as a way of developing his own art – “as in Oriental martial arts, where it’s assumed that after reaching a certain level, students won’t advance unless they also teach. Think of Chopin, Liszt, and Busoni – they all taught.”

In 2010 he was awarded the world-renowned Gilmore Artist Award for pianists, with its $300,000 prize. “A lot of money, and absolutely not for spending on Lamborghinis. But as a lover of pianos, I was tempted ….”

But then he realised that the extraordinary collection of pianos he already had didn’t need augmenting: a Steinway Model B (“love at first sight when I found it in the factory, and still a love affair now”); a rare 1930s Bechstein with two keyboards (“wonderful for organ sonorities”); an 1848 Pleyel with original strings and hammers (“like Chopin’s in Majorca”); and the 1899 Bluthner he’d grown up with. So, he decided to blow the money on commissioning new works from Oliver Knussen, Alexander Goehr, and those cross-cultural firebrands Chick Corea, Brad Meldau and Timothy Andres. “And I couldn’t imagine a more rewarding way of spending it.”

When he makes a CD, the same sort of lateral thinking comes into play. His latest, released last month, offered the unprecedented pairing of Schumann’s Carnaval with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

His rationale was the “spiritual similarity” between those provocatively original composers, and his playing is studded with new insights. He recently made a charming CD of Mussorgsky’s The Nursery with the mezzo Elisabeth Kulman, all profits from which went to a children’s cancer charity.

And when he launches into print, people take notice. Earlier this year the British pianist Stephen Hough claimed in the New York Review of Books that he had made an exciting musical discovery, namely a “wrong note” at the start of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto. Gerstein responded with an argument which gracefully skirted Pseuds’ Corner to score an undeniably evocative point. “To me,” he observed after a musicological disquisition, “the lovely asymmetrical F is redolent of the unpaved country roads of Tchaikovsky’s Russia.”

He got a huge response from readers. “Some people wrote asking what’s the big deal, it’s just one note. Others agreed that it was not a discrepancy, but part of a larger idea. And the whole thing turned into an argument about aesthetic choices, about symmetry versus non-symmetry – and about what a composer does when somebody comes along 100 years later, and rewrites what he regards as a slip of the pen. What can you do to protect an anomaly that you wish for? From one note, it  implies a world. That was a fun exercise.” And also quite a profound one.

Kirill Gerstein plays at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, on 8 August. ‘Imaginary Pictures: Schumann’s Carnaval and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition’ is released on the Myrios label

Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments