Fort Worth — Pianist Olga Kern has a visceral and long standing connection to Fort Worth. Thus, PepsiCo Hall on the campus of TCU was completely sold out for her recital as part of the PianoTexas International Academy and Festival—the final distinguished artist concert of this year’s event.
It goes back to her exciting and audience-energizing performances that won her a gold metal in the 2001 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Actually, there were two gold metals given out in 2001, one went to the exuberant Kern and the other to a more contemplative pianist, Stanislav Ioudenitch.
This contrast between the two gold medalists came to mind as Kern delivered a highly colored performance of Robert Schumann’s Carnaval. In this piece, Schumann musically describes the two contrasting parts of his personality: the ethereal, which he named “Eusebius,” and his explosive opposite, “Florestan.” These two opposites also describe the pair of 2001 gold winners: yin and yang, as it were. In this performance, Kern inhabited both diametrically opposed personalities in a most convincing manner and, though she is more at home as Florestan, the contrast was striking.
While Carnaval is basically a set of short variations based on a series of pitches, its 21 movements—Schumann called them “little scenes”—also describes festivities around the beginning of Lent, or the carnaval. Some of the movements are based on friends of the composer while other draw on familiar characters of the commedia dell' arte: Pierrot, Arlequin, and Pantelon et Columbine.
I go into all of this because Kern’s performance was remarkable in that, in her hands, the work became a narrative. The variation form virtually vanished in her storytelling. This was a memorable performance.
She opened modestly with Beethoven’s Variations on a Theme by Salieri. However, the increasingly big program ended with one of the gigantic, and nearly impossible to play, virtuoso pieces in the repertoire: Mily Balakirev’s Islamey (“Oriental Fantasy”), Op. 18.
In between, Kern played a widely varied program, including the aforementioned Carnaval, which displayed her versatility in the many ways she can employ her technical mastery and power at the keyboard.
George Gershwin’s Three Preludes were offset by Earl Wild’s flashy arrangement of “Fascinating Rhythm.” After intermission she played a set of pieces by Rachmaninoff and Scriabin with only a momentary pause.
We heard Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Five Preludes, Op. 32; followed by his Barcarolle in G minor, Op. 10, No. 3; and Six moments musicaux in E minor, Op. 16, No. 4. From Alexander Scriabin, she played his Two Etudes, Op. 42.
However, it was the highly anticipated Islamey, at the close of this huge program, which sent the audience into a frenzy. This is one of a few monster pieces that sits at the technical extreme of the repertoire and that are Kern’s stock in trade.
In fact, Islamey is rarely played in recitals these days, probably because it needs to end a program and is risky in that position because it is so exhausting to an already-tired pianist. Not so her. When its avalanche of notes ended, Kern was even more energized than she was when she started it.
In fact, she launched into three encores, including a blindingly fast version of Rimski-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee. Quite remarkable.
When it was all over, a still-bouncy Kern attended a reception where she stood in heels and greeted most of the audience—embracing many old friends from her Fort Worth days. Her success since then is global and spectacular.
There still remains echoes the critical argument between her occasionally over-exuberant playing and the more reserved approach of Ioudenitch that goes back to the division at the 2001 Cliburn. (I must admit leaning towards the former).
However, the combination of her thrilling pianism on stage and the modest and down-home woman we saw at the reception is irresistible to all.