Last week, Thomas Adès and Kirill Gerstein walked onto the Symphony Hall stage as conductor/composer and featured soloist for the world premiere of Adès’s new piano concerto. Friday evening down the street at Jordan Hall, the two took the stage as equal partners, presenting a co-curated panoply of music for two pianos from the 20th century’s front half, and one piece by Adès as well.
The two’s artistic friendship has played out in numerous collaborations thus far, and their musical trajectories have been similar in character, if not exact details. Both are former wunderkinds who aged into adventurous careers. Gerstein, who was born in the former Soviet Union, moved to America at age 14 to study jazz piano, becoming Berklee College of Music’s youngest-ever student; he later switched his focus to classical. Adès snatched the world’s attention three years after graduating from university, when the chamber opera “Powder Her Face” made headlines for its explicit sexual content and, more important, its unstable and imaginative score; he now plies the threefold craft of conducting, composing, and performing.
Seated at their respective pianos — the primo with the lid up, the secondo with the lid off — the two showed vast differences in temperament. Adès tended to lean back as his hands sprawled across the keyboard, his posture relaxed and phrases rounded. Gerstein, in contrast, was almost always hunched over the keyboard, and he moved with the raw potential energy of a coiled spring; even relaxed legato passages burgeoned with staccato intensity, and the raw firepower with which he attacked Lutoslawski’s “Variations on a Theme by Paganini” broke one of the secondo piano’s strings. (Piano technician John von Rohr jumped into action during intermission for the emergency repair.) The mix of flavors was satisfying, made even more so by the flexibility and rapport each pianist showed; when appropriate, each picked up elements of the other’s style.
The aforementioned string-snapping Lutoslawski variations bounced off the walls with adroit elasticity. Adès’s “Concert Paraphrase on ‘Powder Her Face’ ” felt a tad stiff, and divorced of its dramatic context the piece’s through-line seemed disconnected, though musical thrills were never in short supply throughout the careening, slinking, and crashing of the piece. There were two works by Debussy; the first movement of “En blanc et noir” swept acute passion across both keyboards and the second drew a hazy halo around stacked chords, punctuated by close, heavy dissonances that evoked guns rattling. The duo brushed subtle shadowings over the comparatively brief “Lindaraja,” not a terribly interesting work as Debussy goes; the piece’s conclusion seemed to be on autopilot.
No matter. The first half’s standout was Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms,” in a two-piano transcription by Shostakovich. Sans the unsettling, primal timbres of the chorus and orchestra, which omits violins and violas, the skeleton of the piece was laid bare: Gerstein holding down the vehement melody with Adès providing loping backup, then a consciously austere double fugue and an interplay of explosive, stabbing gestures and relaxed replies. Ravel’s “La Valse,” the final piece, was the concert’s high point. The two were at their mind-melded best, bewitching in their rendition of the dreamy, sumptuous waltz and the grotesque currents of darkness that grasped it, conjuring up a danse macabre for a world whirling off its axis. The audience grumbled in disappointment at being served no encore. I say good call.
THOMAS ADÈS & KIRILL GERSTEIN
Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston in association with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, March 15 at Jordan Hall.
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.