Duxís bumper box of 15 CDs dedicated
to the 2005 Warsaw Chopin Competition,
I suggested we might not have heard
the last of some of the pianists who
got lost on the way. As if to prove
my point, here is a disc by Kevin Kenner,
the American pianist who came 10th
in 1980, then returned in 1990 to win
the "top prize", as the booklet
puts it. This euphemistic phrase sent
me scurrying to the internet to confirm
that the "top prize" was actually
the second, no first prize having been
awarded. Still, thatís nothing to be
ashamed of when we recall that in 1955
a certain Vladimir Ashkenazy came second,
the first prize being taken by Adam
Harasiewicz. Furthermore, Kenner got
a bronze medal in the Moscow Tchaikovsky
Competition of the same year as well
as the International Terence Judd Award
and prizes at the Van Cliburn International
Piano Competition and the Gina Bachauer
International Competition. Since then
he has been busy on the international
scene and also teaches at Londonís Royal
College of Music.
He nevertheless runs
contrary to the standard image of the
Prize-winner, and the American Prize-winner
in particular. After an unusually slow
introduction to the First Ballade Ė
though it moves ahead in the second
bar only to drop back again Ė a prolonged
pause ushers in the famous main theme.
This is given a hushed, gentle melancholy
which made me feel this was going to
be Chopin after my own heart. Certainly,
there is no easy barnstorming, not least
because Kennerís technique can encompass
the big passages while maintaining a
singing warmth and he has untold reserves
of delicacy in the lighter moments.
He is also extremely observant of Chopinís
markings, in the sense that a "piano"
is always a "piano", a "forte"
a "forte", a "crescendo"
a "crescendo", and his tempi
are always plausible interpretations
of the ones Chopin asked for. This shouldnít
be so unusual as to call for comment,
but unfortunately it is.
What disturbs me, especially
in the First Ballade, is that in many
places where Chopin indicates nothing
but the notes, Kenner takes the law
into his own hands, slowing down and
speeding up unmercifully, teasing out
"new" inner voices and inserting
rhetorical pauses. A favourite device
of his, just when the music seems to
be forging towards a climax, is to stop
the flow purely for the purpose of starting
it again. While I remain basically responsive
to the general character he gives the
music, ultimately I found this enervating.
The booklet tells us
that Adrian Jack of Londonís "Independent"
found Kennerís "Ö the best performance
I have ever heard in the concert hall
of all four of Chopinís Ballades".
I wonder if the cold studio conditions
led Kenner to exaggerate in compensation
for the lack of "player-audience"
communication? This could explain why
he seems to have settled down by the
Second Ballade. The opening "Andantino"
sounds just about ideal in tempo and
mood, and once again there is Kennerís
luminous tone-production to be enjoyed.
There are a few liberties later on but
far less disturbing and the Third Ballade
is an unreservedly fine performance.
The Fourth seems on a level with the
Second, basically very beautiful Ė though
some will find the opening surprisingly
slow Ė but with some unnecessary rhythmic
hiccups along the way.
The Nocturne is long-drawn-out
but very beautiful. The middle section
departs radically from both the versions
given in my Henle edition, as well as
dashing away at an unmarked Allegro,
but since this is not the first time
Iíve heard something similar I take
it there is yet a third version of this
The Barcarolle cries
out for comparison with the performance
given at the most recent Warsaw Chopin
Competition by the ultimate winner,
Blechacz. On turning to this I realized
that Kennerís insistence on poetic reverie
and moulded rhythms has a cumulatively
soporific effect and I rejoiced in the
young Poleís more bracingly forward
movement still combined with the utmost
sensitivity. Of the two, I feel
that Blechacz is the more likely to
recapture the old mastersí ability to
combine agogic freedom with rhythmic
discipline, a skill still wonderfully
present when the elderly Horowitz set
down a late version in about 1980 (RCA).
The archetypal "modern" approach
to the Barcarolle must remain Dinu Lipattiís
coolly classical version, though the
1948 recording sounds anything but modern.
Overall, I donít think
Kennerís Ballades can be preferred to
the established masters. He is a true
poet of the piano but his rhythmic vagaries
make for uneven results. Piano fanciers
with extensive collections will nevertheless
welcome his individual view of the music
and the Third Ballade should gain a
high place in their affections.
Just a couple of last
points. If you look at the record casually
in the shop you might suppose you are
getting a musicological outing on the
fortepiano. Donít worry (or get excited).
"Fortepian" is just the Polish
for "Piano". Secondly, the
timing is not particularly generous
Ė the Berceuse and the Fantasy might
reasonably have been added.