Olga Kern, piano, Works by Schumann, Alkan, Chopin and Rachmaninoff, Playhouse, April 30. 2014


The festive close to the Vancouver Chopin Society’s season welcomed Russian pianist Olga Kern, playing a very extended program of Schumann, Chopin, and Alkan in the first half and Rachmaninoff in the second.  Gold medal winner at the 18th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2001, the artist has established herself over the past decade through her seven well-received Harmonia Mundi CD’s of Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Chopin and Brahms. Her family link to Rachmaninoff, and other parts of the Russian composer lineage, is well known.  Rachmaninoff taught her mother, so she is, in a musical sense, Rachmaninoff’s ‘daughter’.  There is no doubt that the pianist is quite individual, seemingly combining a contemporary high-tech power and weight with a rubato-laden sense of motion and drama that one might have found in pianists of a much earlier generation.  For all this combination sometimes led to extreme results here, the recital was very successful, primarily because the pianist brought such unswerving confidence and conviction, and indeed genuine thought, to everything she played.   There is something remarkably decisive and ‘alive’ about Olga Kern’s playing.

It always intrigues me that, for all the popularity of Schumann’s ‘Carnaval’, just how few performances actually end up as totally satisfying.  Olga Kern’s approach provided strong weight and structure at the opening and close of the piece, but in between gave us vivid, sparkling snapshots of all the small little ‘scenes’ involved, some contrasting very strongly with others as they passed by.  There were indeed strong tempo variations and extremes of phrasing and accentuation, but many delicious little moments of wit, play and frolic really emerged en route, and the pianist did not fail to let the more lyrical, dreamy moments have their due.  Certainly, there were eccentricities here but I found it all quite fresh and spontaneous. Not the only way to play Carnaval, but one that the pianist carried through convincingly on her own terms, adding up to a subtle type of integration and ‘human’ resonance.

How refreshing it was to have a little Alkan Etude before the Chopin Sonata.  Kern’s wonderfully-atmospheric playing of the soft opening melody really had me thinking of a guitar or mandolin playing with a subtle tremolo technique.  But then, of course, everything breaks loose in the work, and the pianist gave us all the virtuoso display and weight that was needed.  One thing that was very clear here and elsewhere is just how balanced Olga Kern’s expression is between her hands; she can find inner voices fluently in both; in her left hand articulation, sometimes strikingly so.

There are many classic performances of Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’ Sonata, so here the standards of judgment are inevitably higher. Let me say from the outset that I did enjoy this interpretation even if it there were qualifications.  The opening movement started with a nice momentum and introduced innovative dramatic touches but eventually got a little bogged down by rubato.  Here I thought the pianist might have introduced more changes in tone colour and texture, rather than relying on changes in speed alone.  The following Scherzo was certainly powerful but could have used more sparkle and play.  I found the delivery of its key rhythmic figure overemphatic. I am sure that many might have also found the hammered chords at the opening and close of the funeral march somewhat too demonstrative and weighty, but I could accept this as a very Russian interpretation; the hammer blows at the end literally being ‘daggers through the heart’.  And who could not have fallen for the magically soft playing in the middle of the movement.  The enigmatic and brief finale was a marvel of lightness and motion.

The collection of Rachmaninoff Etudes-Tableaux and Preludes assembled after the intermission clearly brought the most natural and instinctive response from the artist. While the more demonstrative Preludes (including the famous Op. 3) had all the compelling attack, flair and tonal control that we are used to, in others, it was her awareness of the harmonic intricacies and complex inner voices that intrigued me, seemingly giving these pieces more stature.  One often was taken at least as much by the ingenuity and play in the composer’s writing than by any overriding emotional implication.  Nonetheless, the pianist sometimes did find a high-strung neurotic fervor in these pieces that was distinctive.  There was a nice, freshly-minted feel to all this playing and it held my interest throughout.  This Rachmaninoff ‘festival’ continued into the encores.  We would have probably been satisfied with just the first two of these – and stunning they were.  But then it was Olga Kern’s turn to invite us to hear even more, eventually coming to rest with the famous ‘Flight of the Bumble Bee’. 

© Geoffrey Newman 2014  


The young Olga Kern in her award winning Rachmaninoff performance of 2001