Pianist Kirill Gerstein always brings with him something new and exciting, this time his friend Thomas Adès with his new piano concerto, plus Bussoni’s Romanza e Scherzoso with its Mozartian gestures. Equally adept as a composer, conductor and pianist, and a self-professed fan of Jean Sibelius, Thomas Adès will be making his debut as conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra.
One of the most outstanding composer-conductors of recent decades, Thomas Adès (b. 1971) writes music that speaks to the contemporary listener. Already a promising pianist in his youth, he still gives solo recitals in his native London, in Paris, Lisbon and elsewhere, and in a duo with Kirill Gerstein. His breakthrough as an opera composer came in 1995 with Powder Her Face, and he was receiving commissions from the New York Philharmonic and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra before he was even 30. He has since been Artistic Director of the Aldeburgh Festival, Composer-in-Residence of the Ojai Music Festival and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and winner of a Best Opera Grammy for The Tempest. He often conducts his own works and guests at Covent Garden, with the Finnish Radio Symphony, the Gewandhaus Orchestra, the London Philharmonic and other orchestras. He is now in his third year as the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Artistic Partner, a position created specifically for him and just recently extended through the 2020/21 season.
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Born in Voronezh in South-western Russia in 1979, Kirill Gerstein has been in love with the piano for as long as he can remember. He was also equally attracted to jazz, and at the age of 14 was accepted – the youngest pupil ever – to study jazz piano at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, USA. In summer he studied classical music at Tanglewood. The time came when, “Conceptually, I felt I had to make a life decision, and the idea of roaming through the minds and creations of people like Bach, like Beethoven, like Schubert and Rachmaninoff, was simply a bigger draw for me,” he said in an interview in 2014. “I really believe that nobody can practise both art forms on the same high level, so to speak. I must point out that this was a decision I made at the age of 16, and it was a radical one.”
Having made his choice, he enrolled as a pupil of his childhood idol Dmitri Bashkirov in Madrid and of Ferenc Rados in Budapest. His breakthrough came in 2001 with first prize in the Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition in Tel Aviv, and in 2010 he became the sixth recipient of the prestigious Gilmore Artist Award.
Ferruccio Busoni: Romanza e Scherzoso
Born in Italy, Ferruccio Busoni (1866–1924) moved to Austria as a young man, then to Germany, and in 1888 he even taught in Helsinki, though he hated teaching and couldn’t speak the language. He nevertheless found the love of his life here, Gerda Sjöstrand, and became a lasting friend of Jean Sibelius. A prolific composer, he had penned over two-thirds of his 300 or so works by the time he was 20, but few are nowadays performed. He was, however, one of the great pianist-composers of the Romantic era and one of the first whose playing was immortalised on a scratchy gramophone record. His Romanza e Scherzoso (1921) is one of a series of three concertos in which Viennese-Classical lightness meets lush Busonian Romanticism. The other two concertos are for flute and for oboe and orchestra. Busoni intended that for piano to be performed as the second movement of a concert piece in D major (Op. 31), when they would together form a Concertino, but it can also stand alone. Lasting about ten minutes, it is in two contrasting sections.
Thomas Adès: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra
The Concerto for Piano and Orchestra by Thomas Adès premiered in Boston in March 2018 is, in keeping with its title, a no-nonsense classical solo number, almost an archetypical piano concerto that clearly pays homage to its historical predecessors. Adès asked the concerto what it wanted, he says, and it replied that it wanted to continue tradition in the same way as a tree, which is also a traditional form. Adès believes that freshness is best found by returning to tradition, and the concerto certainly is traditional. It has three movements on the quick–slow–quick scheme. The first presents contrasting themes keeping strictly to sonata form with a virtuosic solo cadenza, and the second is calm, melodic and beautiful. The hyper-romantic brilliance in the finale then truly lets the pianist have his head. Critics claim to have spotted indirect allusions to a host of other composers, but the music never ceases to be pure, unadulterated Adès. He wrote it especially for his friend of many years and piano-duo partner Kirill Gerstein.
Leoš Janáček: Taras Bulba
One of the favourite books of Czech composer Leoš Janáček (1854–1928) was the novel Taras Bulba about a 16th-century Cossack and his two sons Andrei and Ostap published in 1835 by Nikolai Gogol. Though a patriot to the very depths of his soul, Janáček was also a Russophile. He founded a Russian Society in his home town, Brno and admired Russian writers above all others. His rhapsody named after the 16th-century Cossack Taras Bulba focuses on three episodes in the story.
Taras Bulba and his sons lead a nomadic life in what is now Ukraine. He craves freedom and the blood of those in power regardless of the sacrifices this demands. He kills Andrei with his own hand for falling in love with the daughter of a Polish general, loses Ostap to the enemy, and dies after being taken a prisoner while seeking retribution. The patriotic outpouring in Gogol’s story spoke so profoundly to Janáček’s soul that he decided to compose a symphonic poem on the subject. He completed it in 1915 but revised it three years later when Czechoslovakia won its longed-for freedom from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.