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
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own