Gilmore Artist Kirill Gerstein Plays Rachmaninoff with Semyon Bychkov at Cleveland Orchestra and San Francisco Symphony

It’s no secret that 2010 Gilmore Artist Kirill Gerstein has a way with the music of Rachmaninoff, consistently drawing raves for his “rhapsodic intensity and big-hearted Russian lyricism” (Chicago Tribune).  In conductor Semyon Bychkov it seems Gerstein has found a kindred spirit; like the pianist, Bychkov is an “eloquent champion” (Sunday Times) of Rachmaninoff’s work, and when the two performed the composer’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in Cologne, Gerstein “made the piano sing” (Kölner Rundschau).  Now pianist and conductor reunite to take their rendition of the Rhapsody to two of America’s top orchestras, making multiple appearances with both the Cleveland Orchestra (Oct 7-10) and the San Francisco Symphony (Oct 14-17).  This fall also sees the release on Myrios Classics of Gerstein’s new solo recital disc, which presents the premiere recording of Ophelia’s Last Dance by Oliver Knussen.

Gerstein has cemented his reputation as a Rachmaninoff interpreter with a number of key works for piano and orchestra.  His recent account of the composer’s Second Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony prompted Chicago Tribune critic John von Rhein to write:

“One could tell just from the finely graded series of chords with which the work begins why the young Russian virtuoso won the prestigious Gilmore Artist Award for 2010.  Gerstein handled them like a master, and they launched a reading of rhapsodic intensity and big-hearted Russian lyricism.  He wowed the audience not by indulging in cheap tricks or self-regarding sensationalism but by treating this music seriously, like the splendid Romantic masterpiece it is.”

Likewise, in Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra, Gerstein “proved to be a bold, sensitive soloist, with an ability to send piano sound vibrantly into the summer night. … [He] made the lyrical material sing, and his fingers appeared to be unstoppable amid Rachmaninoff’s torrent of notes” (Plain Dealer).  As for the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini itself, the Houston Chronicle reports: “His approach was fast, virtuosic, and intellectually strong. …The last [variation] was particularly exciting as pianist and orchestra slowly ratcheted up the energy and intensity.”

The first big break for fellow Russian-American Semyon Bychkov came when he won the 1973 Rachmaninov Conducting Competition.  Like Gerstein, Bychkov is known for the high esteem in which he holds the Russian composer, making what the Financial Times describes as “the strongest possible case” for his music on “a knock-out disc” with Cologne’s WDR Symphony Orchestra, which Bychkov formerly served as chief conductor.

For Gerstein’s appearances with Bychkov at the Cleveland Orchestra, the Rhapsody forms the centerpiece of a program titled “Rhapsodic Rachmaninoff” in Severance Hall (Oct 7-10).  Gerstein and the conductor reprise the work with the San Francisco Symphony for the opening of the South Bay season at Cupertino’s Flint Center (Oct 14), before taking it to the orchestra’s home in Davies Symphony Hall (Oct 15-17).  Patrons will also have the opportunity to meet the pianist at CD signings after most of the performances.


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