A piano recital is a unique experience. Unlike other forms of instrumental recital, a piano soloist is always alone; there’s no accompanist. But Kirill Gerstein finds the company in the music.  

‘On one hand,’ he explains, 'it is chamber music-like, because the music usually mirrors orchestral or chamber music in texture. We are making chamber music with our ten fingers and the instrument; it’s the most concentrated way of making music.' 

 And when it comes to choosing what to play, Gerstein explains that the programming reflects the personality of the pianist.  

'I don’t find it acceptable to have a recital program where you just throw together some pieces that you’re fond of and you learn', he says. 'I find it interesting and required that there be some logic and some connections to the constellation of pieces.' 

So what are the connections in this program? A first or even second glance through the repertoire list won’t reveal obvious links. But Gerstein has a penchant for curatorship and, just like in an art gallery or museum exhibition, he hopes the juxtaposition of music in his recitals will help the audience to hear the music differently.  

'The pieces throw a light on each other,' says Gerstein. 'Or shadows. This make us think about these connections in different ways.' He also leans on a food analogy: 'if you liken it to a meal, you don’t want to serve three steaks. And you don’t want to serve cake before you get to a main dish. The progression also has to say something.'  

For his first dish, Gerstein has chosen to lead with Chopin.  

'The Polonaise-fantaisie starts more in the fantasy realm,' he says, 'it starts in a very improvisatory way. It feels like Chopin sitting down in the spirit of improvisation, looking for the thread, searching for something. I think that’s an interesting way to start a program.'  

Gerstein ends the first half of his recital with another polonaise – Liszt’s Polonaise in E major. 'If Chopin is looking for a Polonaise,' he says, 'then Liszt has found it. It’s a very defined piece. So, in that sense there is a progression from uncertainty to certainty.' 

For Gerstein, a major attraction was the overlooked nature of both works.  

'One of the things that I find so interesting and nostalgic is how pieces go in and out of fashion. This second polonaise of Liszt was once a mainstay of pianist’s programs – Rachmaninoff played and recorded it, so did Busoni. It was a common piece. And it has become a rarely heard piece on a program. But I think it’s very attractive.'  

This thread of forgotten or snubbed pieces is a pattern for Gerstein: 'there are years,' he says, 'where you will say, ‘I want to play the Moonlight Sonata, and the Liszt B-minor sonata’ – very famous works and repertoire. And there are years when one turns and thinks, ‘what about these other pieces by major composers?'  

Gerstein hopes that shining a light on the lesser-known might inspire listeners to go searching: 'if it sends somebody down the path of exploration – all of Faure’s nocturnes, for instance, or a whole book of Poulenc’s piano music – that is a good result.' 

The inclusion of Fauré in the program is a nod to the centenary of the composer’s death.  

'The thirteenth is Faure’s last nocturne,' says Gerstein, 'and it’s so adventurous, harmonically. Next to the Chopin Polonaise-fantaisie, with its searching quality – they belong well in the same half.'  

Including Poulenc’s Trois intermezzi is Gerstein’s cheeky tip-of-the-hat to Brahms’ more-famous three. But as Gerstein explains, 'the music is not strange or difficult. It’s just overlooked.'  

Gerstein returns with another ‘searching’ Chopin work after interval.  

'There is something about presenting two fantaisie works,' he explains. 'The Chopin F-minor Fantaisie – together with the Polonaise-fantaisie – even amongst the many great pieces of Chopin, these two are very special and very advanced compositions. When people say “higher level thinking”, this is “higher level composing”. He’s not just presenting some pretty material and linking it with transitions; it’s intricately and beautifully composed.' 

Chopin’s music regularly alludes to dance – traditional Polish dances and what Gerstein describes as 'apparitions' of marches in the F-minor fantaisie. Dance is also celebrated in Schumann’s Carnival in Vienna: 'it’s so full of imagination and quirkiness,' says Gerstein. 'It is Vienna – and so Schumann is very influenced by all things in 3. Some very overt waltzing, maybe some ländler, some of it is simply twirling in three. There is this undercurrent of the city of the waltz. It is also a bit overlooked in the output of Schumann, and I always found it undeserving that it’s overlooked. It’s a wonderful piece; a good finish.' 

No meal is complete without a surprise dish, and so Gerstein’s program includes a premiere – a brand-new work by internationally-acclaimed Australian composer, Liza Lim. Her Transcendental Etude was commissioned by Musica Viva Australia with funds from the Hildegard Project, and its title recalls Liszt’s own innovative series of etudes, which Gerstein recorded and released in July 2016.  

'With the Liszt cycle, it’s an interesting question, ‘what is transcendental?’ What is meant by that? Is it transcendental demands on the technique? Is it transcendental in a metaphysical sense? That itself is a question for interpretation – both with Liszt, and with Liza alluding to it in her piece.' 

Gerstein has long been a champion of new music. 'There is a special kind of air of creation when the piece is being heard for the first time,' he says. 'You really don’t know what the piece is, what it is like, until it is heard in its entirety, attended to by a group of listeners.' Similarly, Gerstein describes a special atmosphere that can only be felt in live performance: 

'A recital is meant to inspire thoughts, to trigger emotions, and for people to experience together.'  

Gerstein says he has always liked coming to Australia. 'But,' he says, 'one of the things that’s touching for me is the fact that we’ve had to postpone this tour – this being together – several times, because of COVID and travel restrictions and so on. So this possibility to commune together, to gather by the strength of these incredible pieces… this is the treasurable thing.'  

This communing around music is very human, explains Gerstein: 'this need to get together and to contemplate something, be it a Polonaise-fantaisie, or a theatre play. And of course, music is most magical because there are no words – we are sure it’s saying something, but nobody knows what it is saying. But to do it together and to do it live in person – I really look forward to doing that with the listeners in Australia.'  

Kirill Gerstein tours to Melbourne, Canberra, Newcastle, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth from June 11.