Fort Worth — Ever since her Gold medal performance at the 2001 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, the Russian-American pianist Olga Kern routinely sells out houses and generates ecstatic ovations. On Thursday evening in Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum Piano Pavilion, opening the 2019-2020 Cliburn Concerts series, Kern delivered a sizeable serving of her seemingly endless supply of musical prestidigitation.
Dressed in Erté-inspired elegant gowns, she played a huge program of virtuosic favorites with her own combination of technical wizardry and insightful musicianship.
At every Kern appearance there is a crackle of anticipatory electricity in the audience. Such was the case on Thursday — until the start of the concert was delayed. We were informed that a patron fell in the front aisle of the auditorium. We waited for about 30 minutes for the arrival of a team of Emergency Medical Technicians who promptly attended to her.
The President and CEO of The Cliburn, Jacques Marquis, announced that the concert would proceed as planned but, in the interest of time, Kern would eliminate the first selection: Beethoven’s Ten Variations on La stessa, la stessissima by Salieri, WoO 73. While this was unfortunate, mostly because it is rarely heard, the star quality of everything else on the program easily assuaged our tinge of regret.
The shortened first half opened with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 2 in C-major, Op. 53, subtitled the “Waldstein” because he dedicated it to his patron Count Ferdinand Ernst Gabriel von Waldstein of Vienna. This is one of Beethoven’s more difficult sonatas, both technically and musically. Kern played the tricky transition to the last movement in such a natural manner that it was hardly noticeable.
A complete contrast followed, Gershwin’s Three Preludes. Kern’s switch from Beethoven’s seriousness to the freshness of American jazz was seamless. She especially inhabited the bluesy second prelude in such a melancholy manner that you couldn’t help but wonder what she was thinking about.
After intermission, Kern played a collection of short, technically demanding pieces by Russian composers that worked together as though they were already an existing set. She began with three pieces by Rachmaninov, the pianist’s honorary patron saint. She started with his Moment musical in E-Minor, Op. 16, No. 4; followed by Barcarolle in G-Minor, Op. 10, No. 3; and ending with Polichinelle in F-sharp Minor, Op. 3, No. 4. At this point, Kern switched to another Russian piano icon, with Tchaikovsky’s Méditation from 18 Pieces, Op. 72, No. 5.
Staying in the Russian repertoire, Kern gave a stunning performance of Scriabin’s Etude in F-sharp Minor, Op. 42, No. 4. The exotic key aside, this ètude is difficult to pull off because its significant technical demands, including triplets in the right hand and duples in the left, can turn what is supposed to be a rippling atmospheric harmonic study into a scramble of notes.
Kern saved the most arduous, and eagerly anticipated, piece for last, as though energized rather than exhausted by the demanding program. Kern launched into one of the most difficult, if not THE most difficult, works in the repertoire: Balakirev’s Islamey (Oriental Fantasy), Op. 18. Even that didn’t tire her, and she played what she called “… her favorite part of the recital,” some fun, short and challenging, encores. Prokofiev’s ruff ‘n tumble Etude, Op. 2 No. 4; The Music Box, Op. 32 (Lyadov, Anatoly) and finally, Rachmaninov’s lickety-split arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” with an extra dose of lickety.
Kern’s approach is marked by her absolute enjoyment of playing the piano for us. She doesn't convey the usual “recital hall performance attitude” that is so common among artists of her status and ability. Rather, we feel invited in as guests, rather than as ticket buyers, as if she is sharing her favorite pieces in her living room.
But this doesn’t mean she plays a casual, relaxed performance. The opposite, rather. Indeed, her playing-for-friends approach inspires her to greater heights. It allows her the freedom to let loose and play these pieces with the abandon that her secure technique and finely honed musicianship allows.
Kern plays with polish and power but even in her most forceful moments, she never overplays the instrument. Instead, it sounds like multiple pianists are playing on multiple pianos. Her softest touch never fails to speak, which is even more difficult to achieve.
A good example of Kern’s unusual combination of technique and musical insight arrived in the first measure of the first selection. Beethoven’s sonata opens with a series of repeated chords. What most pianists don’t recognize is that the top note of these chords creates a melody with sweep and grandeur. To achieve Beethoven’s intent, the pianist must play the rapidly repeating chords while bringing out the top note in a sustained fashion while sublimating the other notes. This is not an easy task. It requires control over each finger individually and Kern made that tune sing out.
There were many other examples of how she used her mastery of technique to bring out usually ignored details, such as subtle counter lines and composer-inserted effects. It sends me, for one, back to the score, where I inevitably wonder “how could I have missed that?”
Kern’s program has the appearance of playing a collection of the most difficult material for the instrument. But since she never was a show-off, she must have picked pieces that she likes to play without regard for difficulty levels.
Ending such a long and challenging program with Islamey is risky, to say the least. It is famous for being transcendentally difficult, to the point of being a regular on the programs of many a brave contestant in major international competitions. It is based on folk songs the composer gathered on a memorable trip to the Caucasus. It is so challenging that the score has numerous, less challenging, passages marked ossia (alternate) in order to encourage more performances by mere mortals.
Some of today’s top-level pianists occasionally include it in a program, sweating profusely, but Kern had a blast playing it for us — enjoying every moment of the experience. She tossed off an astonishing note-perfect thrills ’n’ chills roller-coaster ride of a performance.