Thursday, May 1, 2014

In Search of an Artist's Soul

In the musical world, there are artists who draw listeners into the inner spiritual world of the musical masterpiece, and there are others whose sheer abilities on his or her instrument draw our attention to the potential of that instrument. Pianist Olga Kern, I think, firmly belongs to the latter category of instrumentalists.

Kern made her Vancouver Chopin Society debut last night in a mammoth programme of Schumann, Alkan, Chopin, and Rachmaninoff. I found it curious that the pianist chose to open her programme with Schumann’s Carnaval (Op. 9), a work that many pianists would end their concert with. In fact, opening the concert with Carnaval, and closing off the first half with Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 35, made Alkan’s Etude in G Major, Op. 35, the work performed between the two major works, superfluous, and nothing more than a vehicle to demonstrate the pianist’s dexterity.

I found Kern’s interpretation of Carnaval, well, uncomfortable. Her excessive use of rubato throughout the work seriously hampers the flow of the music. Moreover, rather than conceiving the set as a whole, I felt that she treats each of the twenty sections as individual pieces, and I missed the sense of organic unity that the work calls for. In Chiarina, her distortion of the rhythm almost completely obliterates Schumann’s passionato indication. In the final Marche des “Davidsb├╝ndler” contre les Philistins, there was a lack of a sense of inevitable drive towards the end, in spite of the pianist’s blistering virtuosity.

I was also surprised that Kern decided to play the Sphinxes section. I know that pianists as great as Rachmaninoff had included these few notes in his recording, but I really believe that Schumann intended this section as a riddle, an enigma or a puzzle for the player, and that these notes really shouldn’t be played.

Alkan’s Etude in G Major was well played, and amply demonstrated the young pianist’s considerable ability around the keyboard. Alkan had written many fine and original works, but this piece is really nothing more than a showpiece, not worthy of being in the company of Carnaval and Chopin’s Sonata.

The first moments of Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor began promisingly enough, with great drama, and plenty of drive. Came the second subject and Kern’s excessive rubato again destroyed the intricate structure of the first movement. In the left hand octave passage of the coda (mm 230 to 235), she slowed the tempo to such an extent that the impetus of the music was completely gone. In the scherzo, the dramatic A section came off better than the lyrical (Piu lento) B section. I got the sense that Kern was playing from climax to climax. When it came to the lyrical sections of the music, she somehow felt that she had to highlight the music to accentuate its beauty, thus robbing the music of naturalness.

After the intermission, Kern was much more in her element in a selection of three of Rachmaninoff’s Etude Tableaux, as well as a selection of nine Preludes from Op. 23, Op. 32 and Op. 3, ending with a take-no-prisoner performance of the Prelude in B-flat Major, Op. 23, No. 2. The performances here were much more idiomatic and, strangely enough, more natural and flowing.

If I had any reservations about the evening’s performance, I was obviously in the minority. The audience rewarded the pianist with an ovation, and she in turned rewarded the audience with four or five encores. Vladimir Horowitz, a master of pianistic thunder, often played more lyrical pieces in his encores.  Kern would do well to emulate this. All of her encores appeared to be more and more virtuosic. Yes, it was impressive, but I found my ears getting very tired toward the end of the evening, and I yearned to get away to some Bach and Schubert.

In spite of the high volume of Olga Kern’s playing, there was surprisingly a lack of variety in her pianistic colours. Things were either soft or loud. She obviously reveled in passages of great passion and brilliance. Perhaps, like Horowitz, she will mellow in her old age. Looking at the pianist’s face as she brought off another pianistic feat is like looking at the face of a child as he or she speeds down the lane on the new bicycle.

For now, Olga Kern remains, for me, a brilliant instrumentalist that delights in showing off her abilities at the instrument. What I kept wishing for was for her to bare her soul to us through the music that she plays.