The final showdown: Kirill vs. “Rach 2″

Pianist Kirill Gerstein takes the Houston Symphony for the last set of RachFest performances January 19, 21 & 22. He will perform Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2. Photo credit: Marco Borggreve

The third and final week of “RachFest” is filling me with excitement for the upcoming performances of Rachmaninoff’s second concerto. I’m also feeling a hint of nostalgia as this project comes to a close. It has been wonderful and challenging to be immersed uninterruptedly in Rachmaninoff’s concertos. Performing all of them with the musicians of the Houston Symphony, becoming familiar with many of the audience members, feeling the continuity of the series and staying in Houston for three weeks has been a memorable and touching experience. I am grateful for having this chance to form bonds that go deeper than the usual five-day engagement period for most concerto performances allows.

I find Rachmaninoff’s second concerto comparable to Tchaikovsky’s first in the challenges it presents to a modern-day interpreter. Both pieces are more than popular and their themes have become part of our general culture. Thus the challenge is in trying to get back to the source of the pieces, peeling away the listening habits and cliches, and taking the pieces seriously, as they were taken, before becoming “warhorses” of the repertoire.

Of all Rachmaninoff’s concertos, the second is the one that most depends on the individual emotional investment of the pianist and the conductor, as well as a certain purity of musical goals. Unlike the third concerto, here the piano writing alone doesn’t generate all the necessary voltage. At the same time, overt emotionality quickly lapses into sentimentality.
The need for a balanced point between the extremes of boredom and kitsch suggests a classical approach to a very romantic yet pure substance. The musical material contains a typical Rachmaninoff mixture of church bells, long melodies tinged with melancholy and Russian harmonies spiced up by the fascination with Caucasus. The Black Sea and the Caucasus mountains were a draw to many Russian artists from Lermontov and Pushkin to Chekhov and Rachmaninoff.

Thank you for following and listening to our Rachmaninoff journey this month. The beauty of music is that each listener experiences it differently and its effects are undeniable yet unpredictable. I will be thrilled if something from these concerts stays in your memory and I hope to meet you in future musical adventures.

In the meantime, there is one more joint adventure this week: please join me for Rachmaninoff’s Second concerto with the Houston Symphony and Maestro Hans Graf.

-Kirill Gerstein

To purchase tickets to RachFest 3 – Rach 2, please click here. To keep up with Kirill after he leaves Houston, visit his website, follow him on Twitter or like him on Facebook!

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