A special blend of Russian and Jewish heritage has fed into the pianist Kirill Gerstein's dynamic artistry. He is blessed with a magnificent technique and questing musicianship, plus a nonchalant flair at the keyboard fed by his skill at jazz improvisation. Now 36, he lives in Berlin with his Israeli wife, Noam, a former chef, and their young son. Accustomed to the hectic schedule of the international soloist, he seems to approach life with a world-weary yet twinkle-eyed sense of humour, and music with seriousness of purpose and intense creativity.
This month he is in London to play two rare Tchaikovsky works: the Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 3, which are usually overshadowed by the ubiquitous No. 1. His recording of the latter in its original version made waves, so radically different did it prove from the barnstorming edition we usually hear. Now his performances at the BBC Symphony Orchestra's Tchaikovsky Festival at the Barbican, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, should offer more surprising delights, promising to reveal a side of the composer we don't often experience.
"Tchaikovsky's Second Piano Concerto would be extremely famous if it were not for its famous predecessor," Gerstein remarks. "Tchaikovsky himself seems to have been very pleased with it. It's a wonderful piece, huge in scope and one of the treasures of the concerto repertoire. The slow movement is essentially for piano trio, with major solos for the lead violinist and cellist besides the pianist. There's a gigantic cadenza, which sounds like a foreshadowing of Scriabin, and the last movement is pure fun, Tchaikovsky in joyous mode.
"Some people say it is full of empty bombast," he adds, "but I don't think that is true. It depends how you approach it. Tchaikovsky is a very musical, kind and noble soul and it's for us performers to bring that out."
The Piano Concerto No.3 is performed even less frequently: the composer completed only one movement of it, though considered this strong enough to stand alone. "It sounds quite experimental," says Gerstein. "He's looking for new approaches and therefore it is in very symphonic style. The soloist and the orchestra are working towards a shared musical goal."
In the USSR you could be and feel very Jewish
Tchaikovsky presents us with what feels like an idealised vision of Russia. But, for Gerstein, growing up Jewish in the last days of the Soviet Union, the experience had little romanticism to offer. What does his Jewish heritage mean to him? Gerstein responds, laughing, with an emphatic "Oy!"
"The Soviet Jews didn't really have a chance to grow up observant," he points out. "The front page of a Soviet passport would state your name, then 'Nationality', and for us it would put 'Jewish'. To be Jewish was to be treated as an ethnic group, in a very obvious way. For instance, in school you'd know how many people in the class were Russian, Ukrainian, Jewish, Armenian, etc."
When his parents were young, he recounts, racial quotas were in place: "You'd be told, for instance, that there was no point applying to a certain university because they weren't going to take that many Jews."
"In the USSR you could be culturally and ethnically Jewish and feel very much that way, both from inside the family and from the fact that if you forgot it for five minutes, something in the outside world would stick the fact in your face to remind you.
"Aside from that," he adds, "I certainly grew up feeling Jewish and identifying with Jewish secular culture. Now I'm married to an Israeli and our son speaks fluent English, Russian and Hebrew, so the connection has only deepened. I've been to Israel many times since I won the Arthur Rubinstein Competition there in 2001."
That triumph launched Gerstein's international career, but his musical life had already taken an unusual trajectory. He left Russia at 14 to study not classical playing but jazz, at Berklee College in Boston: "It was an exciting offer because there is no better place to further an interest in jazz than Berklee," he says. It was only after three years of intensive study there that he finally decided to concentrate on the classical side, "trading the excitement of my improvised thoughts for the written-down thoughts of geniuses!"
There were plenty more surprises in store. The Gilmore Foundation in the US makes an award of $300,000 every four years to an exceptional pianist, chosen in secret. It's potentially a life-changing moment for its winners, bringing an immediate increase in attention and demand; recipients have included Ingrid Fliter, Piotr Anderszewski and Leif Ove Andsnes. In 2010, Gerstein was astonished to hear that he had been picked as the latest.
He decided to spend some of the money on commissioning new works: the result was significant new piano pieces from composers including Brad Mehldau, Chick Corea and Timo Andres. Gerstein's involvement with new music has continued ever since. Now the celebrated British composer Thomas Adès is writing a piano concerto for him, a commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra to be premiered in 2018: "That is superbly exciting, because I find he has an incredible musical mind," declares Gerstein.
His latest recording, meanwhile has been scooping accolades in plenty. And no wonder: it is of Liszt's complete 12 Etudes d'exécution transcendente ('Transcendental Etudes'), a cycle of fiendishly difficult studies, each a miniature tone poem with a poetic title, that is tackled in its entirety by only a handful of the finest (and bravest) artists.
"It was a deeply personal adventure," Gerstein says. "I felt it would be a good thing for me to try to master them, because I would come out a better pianist and musician if I succeeded. But when you start some of these pages, you wonder if it will ever be manageable, let alone performable in concert or fit for recording!"
It is not only the technical demands that are daunting, but the whole idea of "transcendental".
"It means 'something that goes beyond' – but beyond what," Gerstein muses.
"I think the preoccupation with the spiritual and the ghostly is present in many of the etudes and is a crucial aspect of what 'transcendental' can mean. This idea was a guide to me in interpreting some of the pieces: for instance, Feux follets ('Will-o-the-wisp'). Is it really just about playing as fast as possible? Or is it a ghostly flickering, the mysterious wavering lights in a swamp that mislead travellers?
"From the first etude to the last, the cycle progresses in a way that I think was very carefully thought out by Liszt," he says. "It goes from virtuosity of this world in the first few etudes towards something that increasingly levitates, until you get to the most impressionistic and 'transcendent' pieces, from no. 9 onwards. The final one, Chasse-neige ('Snowdrift'), is stunning and absolutely devastating. It's tragic, it's almost modernist and I think Liszt's decision to finish the cycle with everything obliterated in white snow was deliberate."
A magnificent achievement it may be, but Gerstein refuses to rest on his laurels. "I enjoy playing music," he declares.
"This season I'm performing a great selection of repertoire and I'm lucky that it's in nice places with excellent colleagues. It really is a joy and a privilege."