Kirill Gerstein Triumphs in Houston Symphony’s “RachFest”, Playing All Four Rachmaninoff Concertos

Last month, Gilmore Artist Kirill Gerstein wowed audiences and critics alike with multiple performances of all four Rachmaninoff piano concertos, as artist-in-residence of the Houston Symphony’s “RachFest” – a special three-week celebration of the composer’s music. Of this extraordinary musical feat the Houston Chronicle reported, “Gerstein scored a knockout,” and the Houston Culture Map confirmed, “Piano god Kirill Gerstein rocked the Rachs.” As for festival-goers, the Chronicle described the “five-minute ovation” that greeted Gerstein’s final program, a response that the Culture Map considered not merely “Southern hospitality,” but something “different, genuine, and heartfelt.”

Rachmaninoff has long been a signature composer for the Russian-born pianist. “I usually don't admit to having a favorite composer,” he told the Chronicle, “but in the case of Rachmaninoff, I must say that I truly enjoy playing his music. I have loved it since childhood. It’s a part of my Russian heritage that embedded itself in me early on.”

In a series of blog posts accompanying the festival, Gerstein called Rachmaninoff’s four piano concertos “some of the most gratifying pieces written for the piano.” He added, “Playing and hearing the four concertos in three consecutive weeks offers a special opportunity to hear the essence of Rachmaninoff’s voice while observing the changes and growth of his style.” Undertaking three accounts each of the four concertos was an ambitious project, not least for the piano soloist. In a little over three weeks (Jan 5-22), Gerstein offered three performances of the third with British conductor Edward Gardner, as well as three each of the first, second, and fourth under Houston Symphony Music Director Hans Graf.

The pianist characterizes the challenge posed to modern interpreters of works as popular and familiar as Piano Concerto No. 2 as one of “trying to get back to the source of the pieces, peeling away the listening habits and clichés, and taking the pieces seriously, as they were taken, before becoming ‘warhorses’ of the repertoire.”

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