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
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.