Many surmise that the Golden Age of Pianism is dead and that no one can now recapture the supple tone and grandiose elegance of, say, Horowitz or Rubinstein or Serkin. I dwelt in that despondent camp until I heard Olga Kern perform before a packed Belk Theatre in Charlotte on February 7.
Arising from the steppes of Russia, as did many of her "golden age" predecessors, Kern leapt to the world stage by winning Van Cliburn competition, the first woman to do so in more than thirty years. She then began concertizing with orchestras internationally. She made her Carnegie Hall debut on May 1, 2004, in Zankel Hall, and was invited back eleven days later to perform in the famous Isaac Stern Auditorium. She tours extensively and currently has four albums on the Harmonia Mundi label.
The opening piece of the evening was the idiomatic "Variations Sérieuses" by Felix Mendelssohn, a work considered by many to be the composer's finest score for solo piano. Mendelssohn gave it this title ("serious variations") to differentiate it from the plethora of tasteless, whimsical variations based on operas being written at the time. It was given a satisfactory reading by Kern, who showed ample contrapuntal technique in the fourth and tenth variations and a keen ability to alter the emotion spontaneously. She created an anxious mood in the final variation and generally captured every nuance that she was supposed to without bringing too much of herself into the work. This is typical of the new generation of pianists – mechanically-perfect, competition-winning automatons – and I expected more of the same.
I was pleasantly surprised with the next selection, the scherzo from A Midsummer Night's Dream, written by Mendelssohn and transcribed for solo piano by Sergei Rachmaninov. It was an interesting programmatic choice to sandwich this barn-burner between two exceedingly sober pieces, and it worked quite well, creating an identifiable connection with the audience. She played with flair and dazzling speed and for the first time separated herself from her machine-like cohorts.
Despite Kern's well known penchant for the less common works of the repertoire, her next piece was the wildly popular Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor of Frédéric Chopin. She played the first movement at a fast tempo, and it worked well within the realm of her interpretation of the sonata. The scherzo movement followed suit, in fast tempi but also suited to the performance. The famous largo, "Marche funèbre," featured wonderful color, and Kern displayed her ability to paint a scene. The darkness was overwhelming and the "wind over the grave" was spine-chilling. One could imagine leaves fluttering over an old Polish graveyard as the sun set and an eerie night ensued. Overall, the work was given an original reading, something very difficult to achieve in a composition that so often appears among concert pianists' repertoires. Her use of different hues to outline pictures and her introductions of colors were magnificent and left the audience breathless as they stood for intermission.
The opening pieces of the second half were the Morceaux de Fantaisie, Op. 3, of Sergei Rachmaninov. The selections were written in 1892 when the composer was 19 years old, and the collection contains some very significant works, including the well known Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, a piece that was a thorn in Rachmaninov's side because audiences would not let him leave a recital without playing it. (He once declared that he wished he had never written it.) Kern displayed her special affinity with the great Russian composer throughout the five selections but was inimitable in the Prelude and the Serenade in B-flat minor. Following the stunning Morceaux, Kern ended the program with the virtuosic "Réminiscences de Don Juan" of Franz Liszt. A true test of the endurance and technique of any pianist, this is typically little more than a showpiece for the entertainment of dilettantes, but Kern made it a masterwork. Dazzling accuracy and voracious speed mixed with restraint that brought the suspense to a feverish pitch made this piece shine.
After heavy applause, Kern graciously played a few encores, including Rachmaninov's transcription of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee." Kern has a velvety touch and enough virtuosity to place her among the great pianists of our day. Her rhythms cut like a knife, and the sonority she creates has few parallels today.