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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)/RACHMANINOV Suite from Partita in E for Violin (Preludio [3’23]; Gavotte [2’51]; Gigue [1’39]).
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)/RACHMANINOV Wohin?
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943) Lilacs, Op. 23 No. 5 [2’44] Variations on a theme of Corelli, Op. 42 [18’53]

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Scherzo [4’20]

Liebesleid [4’05] Liebesfreud [6’52]
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)/RACHMANINOV

L’Arlésienne – Minuet [3’08]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)/RACHMANINOV

Lullaby, Op. 16 No. 1 [4’18]

The Tale of Tsar Saltan – Flight of the Bumble Bee [1’08]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (with cadenza by RACHMANINOV) [11’48]
Olga Kern (piano)
Rec. Skywalker Sound, Marin County, CA, USA, 30 Aug - 2 Sept 2003. DDD


Perhaps I have just been to one piano competition too many, but the epithet ‘winner’ of any competition, no matter how major, does not inspire my confidence any more. For what it is worth, Olga Kern won the Gold Medal at the 2001 Van Cliburn Competition. Trained at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatoire (she can play scales, then), her technique is to be taken for granted ... and so it proves.

This is an appealing programme; another competition winner, Ian Hobson, similarly chose to record similar transcriptions after his win at Leeds – on CfP, so maybe there is something about this repertoire – not too deep, possibly.

There is much attractive playing on Kern’s superbly recorded disc. Harmonia Mundi stalwarts Producer Robina Young and Engineer Brad Michel do the honours. The Bach Suite immediately reveals even touch, great clarity and a certain robustness in the Gigue. But nothing really takes off … Better by quite a margin is Schubert’s Wohin?, with a nice sense of fantasy and longing attached to it.

To contrast, Lilacs is given affectionately, with nice warm tone. Kern seems more at home here in almost pure Rachmaninov, as can be heard from the contrast to a slightly lumbering Mendelssohn Scherzo (she is better in the Bizet numbers as far as this quality is concerned) and, as if to reaffirm my assertion, a fragrant Daisies.

The Kreisler items work well, particularly Liebesfreud, which is not only joyous but cheeky to boot, swaggering along very nicely!.

A highlight comes in the form of the Tchaikovsky Lullaby, which begins with darker shades than one would probably expect from this form, yet which moves on to be both delightful and touching. If the Mussorgsky Hopak and the Rimsky Flight show a more virtuosic side to Kern - a positively buzzing one in the Rimsky, this is good stuff!

The Liszt is interesting, as it includes Rachmaninov’s flourishes from his 1919 recordings of this work. Kern does not seem fully immersed in Liszt’s idiom here, however, the great quasi-improvisations of the opening seemed too studied, too note-for-note. But to her credit, the piece never sounds hackneyed, as it so easily can do. All of this has been as one great hors d’oeuvres before the main course of Rachmaninov’s Corelli Variations. This is a magnificent work, one of this composer’s best pieces for solo piano and it is good that Kern is at her best here. The opening statement is like a glass of cool water after the dark storm of the Liszt. Kern takes the listener on a much-variegated journey that includes peace as well as energy, charm as well as spikiness. Perhaps on occasion Kern forces her tone somewhat, but this remains a lovely way to close the disc (and probably the part of it I will return to, realistically speaking).

Certainly worth hearing for the Corelli Variations.

Colin Clarke

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