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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


 

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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Ballades: 1 in g op.23 [10:13], 2 in f op.38 [07:16], 3 in A flat op.47 [07:11], 4 in f op.52 [11:52]
Barcarolle op.60 [09:24]
Nocturne in c sharp op. posth. [04:50]
Kevin Kenner (piano)
rec. June 2005, Pomeranian Philharmonic Concert Hall, Bydgoszcz, Poland
DUX 0521 [51:09]



When reviewing 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 piece somewhere.

The Barcarolle cries out for comparison with the performance given at the most recent Warsaw Chopin Competition by the ultimate winner, Rafał 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.

Christopher Howell

 



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