By Lawrence Budmen 

When it comes to sheer speed and dexterity Olga Kern is in a class by herself. The Russian born pianist , Gold Medal winner of the 2001 Van Cliburn Competition, presented a program of romantic works by Mendelssohn, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and Liszt on January 15 for Sunday Afternoons of Music at the UM Frost School of Music’s Gusman Concert Hall. 

In many ways the classical music world needs more artists like Kern. She is the complete package. Her glamorous appearance and beautiful gowns (one for each half of the concert) rivet attention. She exudes charisma as she embraces the keyboard. Kern really knows how to engage an audience. 

Kern opened her recital with a well articulated, sober traversal of Mendelssohn’s rarely heard Variations Serieuses in D Minor, Opus 54. This rigorous score should put to rest the image of Mendelssohn as a musical lightweight. It is an audacious technical challenge for any keyboard artist. Kern does not lack ambition. In Rachmaninoff’s airy transcription of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream incidental music, Kern’s rapid fire articulation literally bounced off the keyboard. The music really sparkled and danced. 

Kern’s approach to Chopin’s Sonata No.2 in B-flat Minor, Opus 35 was more problematical. Her exaggerated contrasts of playing very loud and very soft are sometimes overly affected. In the first movement the second subject was too slow. Yet there was no denying Kern’s romantic fervor. The Scherzo was demonic indeed and the contrasting Piu lento theme was played with glowing beauty of tone. The famous Marche funebre needed greater repose. Too much focused intensity produced harshness. The extraordinary “night winds over churchyard graves” Presto finale needed greater mystery. There was no denying Kern’s feverish intensity. She clearly treasures Chopin. 

Five of the Morceaux de Fantasie, Opus 3 by Rachmaninoff were more variable. The famous Prelude in C-sharp minor emerged with steely power and passionate Russian melancholia. The lovely Melodie in E Major wanted greater lightness and charm. Elegie in E flat Minor was barely recognizable. This is brooding, eloquent music that needs finely attenuated attention to detail. The Serenade in B-flat minor would have benefited from more light hearted verve and greater precision. 

It was wonderful to hear Franz Liszt’s transcription of the Liebestod from Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. Liszt’s virtuosic treatment of this impassioned aria is a sheer pianistic tour de force. Kern was equal to Liszt’s unbelievable demands and more. She played this keyboard gem with throbbing passion. When she relaxes and lets the music speak, Kern is impressive indeed. 

Liszt’s Mozart pastiche Reminiscences de Don Juan is one of those formidable showpieces that pianists can not get enough of. Kern’s version had power aplenty but needed greater lightness of touch. In pursuit of sheer feverish intensity, she tended to skip notes and runs. The Mozartean charm of the Don Giovanni themes did not register. Her over the top performance delighted a large, enthusiastic audience. 

In response to repeated standing ovations Kern offered the lilting Spinning Song (Saint-Saens), an invigorating Hopak (Mussorgsky – transcribed by Vladimir Horowitz) replete with filigree, and a dashing, lightning paced Flight of the Bumble Bee (Rimsky-Korsakov) as encores. These light pieces were played with abandon and energy. Kern’s glamour and red hot intensity may herald the new face of classical music. 

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