The Kirill Gerstein Moment

Album Review of Thomas Adès: In Seven Days (Kirill Gerstein, Thomas Adès, Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra)

Gerstein, Kirill. Thomas Adès: In Seven Days. Recorded with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, conducted by Thomas Adès, March 2019. Myrios Classics MYR027, 2020. CD.

The Russian-American pianist Kirill Gerstein has established himself as one of the leading pianists of the present. His new album, Thomas Adès: In Seven Days, shows Gerstein at the height of his achievements, as he joins forces with the British composer and performer Thomas Adès—with whom he has been collaborating for nearly a decade. In an interview with Tom Service included in the album booklet, Gerstein states that Adès’s music “refracts, like a prism,” previous traditions of pianist-composers from Chopin to Liszt to Busoni. This idea of Adès’s music as both “bending” and presenting tradition from a different perspective is evident throughout the album. Ultimately, what strikes me most about this album is how Gerstein is able to smooth over the historical discontinuities of Adès’s music—how Adès pushes his historical models to their breaking point—and place these compositions squarely within the canon of piano virtuoso music of Liszt, Busoni, Prokofiev, and Gershwin.

Kirill Gerstein performs Thomas Adès’s Mazurkas

The album Thomas Adès: In Seven Days begins with a two-piano arrangement of Concert Paraphrase on “Powder Her Face,” performed here by Gerstein and Adès. Adès’s concert paraphrase—a virtuoso genre that dates back to the nineteenth century—is based on his 1995 chamber opera Powder Her Face, which tells the real-life story of Margaret Campbell, the Duchess of Argyll, whose 1963 divorce trial was the subject of much media attention. The opera begins with a musical quotation of a tango by Carlos Gardel, and the tango style pervades the first and fourth movements of the concert paraphrase. Adès’s concert paraphrase, originally composed in 2009 for solo piano, is much more “operatic” in this two-piano version, which features the two performers in musical dialogue like characters in an opera. In the third movement, based on the opera’s Scene Four (Aria “Fancy Being Rich!”), the layering of polyrhythms is enough to make your head spin. The music staggers and lurches forward frantically, before finally settling into a musical quotation of Schubert’s song “Death and the Maiden.”

The following Berceuse (French for “cradle” or lullaby) is taken from Adès’s more recent opera, The Exterminating Angel, and was arranged by the composer as a solo piano work for Gerstein. In the context of the opera, the Berceuse accompanies the two lovers, Eduardo and Beatriz, as they go into a closet and kill themselves. The solo piano arrangement conjures up the floating sonorities of Debussy’s prelude The Sunken Cathedral. The Mazurkas, also recorded here, were composed for Chopin’s bicentenary in 2010. A Polish folk dance in triple meter, the mazurka was already popular in Parisian high society by the time Chopin composed his examples between 1825 and 1849. Adès draws on many of the standard features found in Chopin’s mazurkas: the contrast between quick, lively sections and melancholic ones; dotted rhythms on the first beat (a characteristic of mazurkas in general); and, the use of modes and chromaticism. Yet just as important are the ways that Adès subverts his historical model: the asymmetrical groupings of two’s and three’s in No. 2 and the extreme registers of No. 3.

The album concludes with Adès’s In Seven Days, described by the composer as a work for “piano and orchestra with moving image.” Although the work was initially conceived to be performed with a video installation by Tal Rosner, it is now frequently performed as a stand-alone piece, as is the case here. Based on the Biblical story of Creation, Adès’s In Seven Days invites comparison with Franz Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation, one of the most impressive multimedia compositions of the late eighteenth century. Haydn’s oratorio begins with an instrumental introduction depicting chaos (“The Representation of Chaos”). When the chorus enters several minutes later with the text “And God said: Let there be Light, and there was Light,” the second appearance of the word “light” is highlighted by means of a fortissimo chord in the major mode accompanied by full orchestra. The moment was so surprising to Haydn’s first audience that he had to stop the music for several minutes before resuming.

Although there is no similar moment in In Seven Days, Adès also emphasizes the shift from chaos to light through timbre and instrumentation. Adès depicts the chaos through the strings, which repeat a motive that modulates aimlessly. Shortly before the first entrance of the piano, the brass play a massive crescendo leading up to a dissonant chord—this is the shift to light. The piano in this work seems to comment on the events, akin to the chorus in Haydn’s oratorio. In my interpretation of the work, In Seven Days is an extended meditation on the act of creation as the introduction and development of very basic materials—in this case musical materials. As Adès states: “The story is set as a set of variations, reflecting the two-part structure of the story: Days 1, 2, and 3 are complemented by Days 4, 5, 6. In Day 7 the Theme is presented in its simplest form.” Although Adès waits until the end to present the theme in its simplest form, the basic material—both a sequence of tones and harmonies—is apparent throughout.

In conclusion, this album is an engaging and thoughtful follow-up to Adès Conducts Adès, an album that includes Gerstein’s electrifying performance of Adès’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. With these two albums following Gerstein’s The Gershwin Moment and Busoni Piano Concerto, I cannot help but make the connection between Adès, Gershwin, and Busoni. Like Busoni, Adès is poised on the cusp between tradition and a break with the past. Like Gershwin, Adès draws on popular and familiar musical styles, transforming them in novel and exciting ways that adhere to audience expectations in the modern concert hall. Kudos to Gerstein and Myrios Classics for encouraging the listener to make such connections.