When Kirill Gerstein plays Beethoven, he makes a lot of decisions on the spur of the moment.
Gerstein, an international star on the classical circuit, also was trained in jazz piano. At his Oct. 13 recital that kicks off the Chicago Symphony’s season-long presentation of all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas, he won’t be making up cadenzas on the spot, of course. When he studies the score of any given sonata, “perhaps there are four or five different ways to play this passage here, seven ways here, here there’s only one way,” he said. “And those decisions can be made rather spontaneously. But if you make one choice, then it affects others down the road. So it becomes like an improvised chess game. And that’s one of the [many] ways that so-called written-down music is full of improvisation.”
The method is “very close to acting in the theater,” he added. “If you’re doing a soliloquy of Hamlet’s, of course the words are already there, but you choose which words to emphasize, and each choice you make affects the next choices.”
Beethoven himself was a pianist, and famous for his improvisational skills, which he used “to try out his thoughts, to impress, to show off.” Like many other musicians of his era, he would improvise in public — something Gerstein has not done in a classical setting, but he hinted it might be coming.
But he cautions, “there’s no excuse for coming out with no idea of what you’re going to do. I have an exact outline. But depending on how my body feels, the audience, the instrument, the hall, I can make deviations, and those are what you call inspiration.”
The New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini saw something similar at work in 2016. “Mr. Gerstein’s background in jazz may have enhanced his ability to make sense of the fantastical qualities of the piece,” he wrote of the pianist’s interpretation of Liszt’s Dante Sonata. “He captured its moody swings, playing with uncanny delicacy in one episode and gnashing power the next. Yet from moment to moment, the music sounded purposeful, even when it took what seemed like a peremptory turn.”
Preparing for a solo recital of work that he knows intimately, such as the Beethoven sonatas, Gerstein will study the score for “the interior world of the piece and the relationships that guide that world.” As for the physical performance of the work, while he plays, he thinks about “how is the movement corresponding to the sound? If the musical gesture and the physical gesture are one and the same, that’s what great technique is.”
The 32 Beethoven sonatas, along with an assortment of other chamber music and the nine symphonies, are being presented this season at Symphony Center as part of the composer’s 250th birthday celebration. Beethoven has been a mainstay of orchestra and chamber programs, and it’s easy for audiences, if not performers, to take his work for granted. “The substance is so rich for me as a performer that it’s not much of an issue,” Gerstein said. “It’s important that we respond to what’s shocking in the music.” From the perspective of Beethoven’s time, “as performers, we need to know what’s controversial, what’s exciting.”
As a pianist himself, Beethoven used the instrument for “his most intimate thoughts,” Gerstein said. “It was an experimental lab for him. A lot of the things he tried there made their way into larger settings.” With variations, he did follow the template of how to write a first movement, a slow movement and a scherzo, but Gerstein said, “He was continually looking for the ultimate solution of how to write a last movement. Each [sonata] is somehow a different solution.”
Gerstein’s recital will include Sonatas Nos. 2, 16, 19, 22 and 4; all of them share the same basic musical language, he said, and “Beethoven tries something new in each one. Any one is a fantastic opportunity to explore the language.”
And, he said, “Beethoven’s humor is underrated. People have this image of him shaking his fist at the heavens, which is true, but there are also a lot of gags and jokes. And there is great beauty and structure and philosophical discourse. And those layers are one reason why this music withstands re-examination by thousands of pianists over hundreds of years.