Friendship was a running theme in Kirill Gerstein’s Celebrity Series recital on Friday — centered around the Boston premiere of Timothy Andres’s “Old Friend,’’ composed for Gerstein — which is not to say that the recital was all affable comfort. Gerstein is a pianist who makes the sound of the piano an end in itself; that penchant propelled the music, at times, into some refreshingly bracing places.
It started far away, however. In Haydn’s Variations in F minor (Hob. XVII: 6) — a memorial, possibly, to Haydn’s friend Maria Anna von Genzinger (or perhaps his other friend, Mozart) — the sound was a standard evocation of Classical-era keyboards: fast fingertips, little sustain, lots of soft pedal, an incessant silvery rustle. Combined with an ascetic lack of rhythmic indulgence (even variation-to-variation transitions were often unaccompanied by even a slight pause), the performance had the distant neutrality of a daguerreotype.
In contrast, Robert Schumann’s Op. 9 “Carnaval’’ — filled with shout-outs to Schumann’s friends, both imagined and real — boasted a palette of Fellini-esque range, mercurial exuberance and delicate melancholy in adrenalized symbiosis. Gerstein pushed the virtuosity to extremes — the “Préambule,’’ and “Papillons,’’ the more voluble half of “Pantalon et Colombine’’ became exercises in concentrated momentum. Inventive touches — a goosed afterbeat in “Arlequin,’’ or a barrelhouse tremolo for the “Sphinxes’’ — felt both idiosyncratic and true to Schumann’s fantastic tendencies.
One of the pleasures of Andres’s “Old Friend’’ was how it combined the first half’s schematic and extravagant qualities into its own individual rhetoric. The hands start at the far ends of the keyboard, repeatedly working their way to a meeting in the middle in ever-more elaborate ways, a framework that turns richly flexible, veering off into one compelling episode after another. Bell-like accents coalesce into an undulating weave of chords, through which a memory of heroic 19th-century tonality drifts in and out of focus; the piece takes continual delight in the piano’s resonance. Gerstein’s atmospheric, athletic performance was persuasive advocacy.
For Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,’’ Gerstein translated the suite’s pictures — after paintings by Mussorgsky’s friend Viktor Hartmann — into a pianistic version of abstract expressionism. Sonic conception superseded literal illustration: “Gnomus’’ became fiercely etched scribbles, “Bydlo’’ was rendered in heavy concrete, the “Catacombs’’ rumbled with thick, impasto chords. Throughout, Gerstein lingered over the score’s most angular qualities. Gerstein’s encore — Rachmaninoff’s Op. 3, No. 3 “Mélodie’’ — was as nostalgic as his Mussorgsky was unsentimental: a bouquet of broadly-outlined Romanticism. For Gerstein, a shift of era is simply a shift in touch.