Serge Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto has been hijacked by popular culture to such an extent that it can be difficult to listen to it without conjuring up images of Marilyn Monroe’s staircase descent in a ballgown in Billy Wilder’s Seven Year Itch or those terribly British lovers in David Lean’s Brief Encounters. It is easy to forget that it is in many ways the perfect piece which, as Stephen Hough says, sounds as though it wrote itself, and now Russian born American pianist Kirill Gerstein has come up with a near-perfect recording of it with the Berliner Philharmoniker, superbly helmed by Kirill Petrenko.

It’s hard to detect any weaknesses. Gerstein is full of assurance and makes exciting “right” choices. Petrenko and the orchestra are in wonderful form and the rich production values make for a totally irresistible package. There is a freedom to Gerstein’s playing that you don’t find in many concert pianists, perhaps because when young he was a jazzman, only fully concentrating on the classical repertoire later, despite taking a prize at the International Bach Competition in Poland when he was 11. Meeting the great jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton was cathartic and the 20-year-old Russian went on to study jazz at Berklee and Manhattan. Now 44, Gerstein divides his time between the US and Germany where he teaches as well as performs.

From his recording debut in 2004 he included a couple of George Gershwin arrangements by Earl Wild, Embraceable You and Liza, in among the Bach, Beethoven and Scriabin pieces. He later went on to become one of the few Russian pianists to take on Rhapsody in Blue, alongside the Piano Concerto in F, on his 2018 release The Gershwin Moment. Gerstein will be touring with Musica Viva in June performing works by Chopin, Fauré, Poulenc, Schumann, Liszt and Godowski, as well as premiering a new work by Australian composer Liza Lim.

After the heady passions and melodies of the concerto, Morceaux de fantaisie, in its more intimate original 1892 version, makes the perfect gentle palate cleanser. It was composed when Rachmaninov was 19 and still under the influence of his mentors, including Tchaikovsky. The following track offers hints of nostalgia for the old Habsburg empire in Rachmaninov’s virtuosic arrangement of Fritz Kreisler’s Liebeslied from Old Viennese Dances. Here, also, Gerstein’s jazz skills serve him well.

He brings the same scintillating technique and form to the other main work, the Variations on a Theme by Corelli, inspired by the La Folia tune used in Arcangelo Corelli’s Sonata Op. 5 No. 12, which Rachmaninov dedicated to Kreisler. We hear that freedom in the almost jazzy hesitancy of the eighth variation – compare it with Mikhail Pletnev’s businesslike version – and again in the dramatic arpeggios of the Intermezzo.

The collection is prettily wrapped up by Gerstein’s own arrangement of Rachmaninov’s early song In the Silence of the Secret Night. This is a collection that ranks alongside Vladimir Ashkenazy’s of yesterday and Daniel Trifonov’s of today.

Listen on Apple Music

Composer: Rachmaninov
Works: Piano Concerto No. 2, Variations on a Theme of Corelli et al.
Performers: Kirill Gerstein p, Berliner Philharmoniker/Kirill Petrenko
Label: Berliner Philharmoniker BPHR230469

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