Russian-born pianist Kirill Gerstein wove his spirit and soul into his brilliant, sensitive technique to form a rich tapestry of colors and moods in his recital in the newly refurbished Baldwin Auditorium on Saturday evening. The program was presented by Duke Performances as part of the Piano Recital Series. Gerstein’s varied program – Haydn’s Variations in F Minor, Hob.XVII:6 (1793), Schumann’s Carnaval, Op. 9 (1833-35), a world premiere of Timo AndresOld Friend (2013)*, and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) – served as a sampler of literature from the piano’s major historical time periods.

Throughout the evening, Gerstein played with a tasteful rhythmic freedom coming from within himself, especially noticeable in Carnaval’s “Pierrot” and other of those twenty-two sections, along with many of the movements in Pictures at an Exhibition. His rubato moments seemed to be built into the gracefulness of his shoulders, arms, and hands as he glided gently over the keys. The use of rubato in the Mussorgsky stood out prominently because one does not hear that interpretation in the orchestral version of the work.

Gerstein possesses a lightning-quick ability to change moods if called for, as in the disturbing Affekt found in variation two of the Haydn. His sparkling and lucid quickness in delivering fast passages, for example, in the “Market Place at Limoges” from Pictures, dazzled the eyes and ears of the listeners. This quality heard throughout the evening was even more delicious because of his control in adding refined crescendi or decrescendi to streams of nimble notes.

With thoughtful clarity, Gerstein led the listener to the musical lines he wanted the listeners to hear, carefully controlling the dynamics among several voices. He shaped the phrasing on local levels with an exquisite sense; however, in contrast, he signaled larger structural points in a movement through an emphasis of notes, a part of his performance style. I did miss hearing not only the miniature silences often used to highlight the ends of phrases but also the use of longer silences between larger sections – as between groups of variations in the Haydn and some of the sections in Carnaval and Pictures – to allow a little more time for impressions to take root.

Gerstein revealed a wide dynamic range either between or within movements. On the piano side of the range of the pianoforte’s continuum, Gerstein spun moments of sensitive delicacy, found in Haydn’s Variations, Schumann’s “Reconnaissance,” and dance-like washes of sound in Andres’ work. Perhaps most impressive of all were the fast, repeated notes in Mussorgsky’s “Con mortuis in lingua mortua.” If I had had my eyes closed, I would have thought there were alto recorders playing those right-hand notes, so responsive was Gerstein’s ability to coax multiple tonal colors out of the black and white keys.

On the forte end of the continuum, Gerstein accesses forceful power from his large frame, such as in the final movements of Schumann’s “March des Davidsbündler” or Mussorgsky’s “Great Gate of Kiev,” both of which provided the last sounds before intermission and the end of the concert, respectively. The unusually resounding depth of tone in the bass notes of Baldwin’s Steinway piano added to the robust effect.

The dynamic forte energy at the end of Mussorgsky’s Pictures brought the audience to its feet, and after several curtain calls, coaxed him into performing one more piece. He chose the quiet, calming “Mélodie” in E, Op. 3 No. 3 (from Morceaux de fantaisie, 1892) by Rachmaninoff, a soothing close to the evening following the highly vigorous ending of the Mussorgsky.

Kirill Gerstein, a relatively young artist of 33, is the 2010 recipient of the $300,000 Gilmore Artist Award and now crisscrosses US and Europe with a full schedule of recitals and orchestral solo appearances. He also holds an appointment as professor of piano at the Hochschule für Musik in Stuttgart, Germany. Gerstein stands tall as an artist of the highest order, one whom we can, we may hope, follow with interest for a good long time.

This admirable piano series continues with Emanuel Ax and Yoko Nozaki on February 1; for details, click here.

Note: Music by Timo Andres figured in a recent DP presentation by yMusic, reviewed here.