There seemed to have been an embarrassment of musical riches from Poland this past weekend. There was Nelson Goerner’s beautiful performance at Warsaw’s “Chopin and His Europe” Festival and, almost at the same time, pianist Kevin Kenner’s outstanding recital at the prestigious Duszniki Festival.
Kenner began his performance with Ned Rorem’s Barcarolle No. 2, the second of a set of three Barcarolles written in a period of ten days (November 17 to 26) in 1949. Each Barcarolle is dedicated to a pianist personally close to the composer, and the one performed at Kenner’s recital is dedicated to Rorem’s close friend, pianist Shirley Rhoads. The splendor and warmth of Kevin Kenner’s sound highlighted Rorem’s beautiful harmonies as well as the introspective, almost hymn-like nature of this gorgeous work.
The atmosphere evoked by the Rorem work continued with music by Robert Schumann, beginning with the Romance in F-sharp major, Op. 28, No. 2. Kenner certainly heeded Schumann’s marking of Einfach (simply) for the work, playing it with disarmingly directness and simplicity. In the outer sections of the short work, he infused the music with an inner glow, just as he effectively underscored the darker, slightly more turbulent harmonies of the middle section. Kenner’s interpretation of the work reminded me very much of a classic performance by Benno Moiseiwitsch, in sound as well as pacing.
The recital continued to draw upon music from Schumann’s inner world, with the Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6, for me one of the composer’s most personal and revealing works. From the first notes of the first section’s opening piece, Kenner’s playing of this large work was deeply felt; he certainly highlighted the very intimate, very inward-looking nature of the entire score, and brought out the character of the two-sided nature – the boisterous and passionate Florestan versus the shy and reticent Eusebius – of the composer’s creative genius. In movements 3 (Mit Humor) and 4 (Ungeduldig), he certainly brought out the spirit of the dance, whereas in the introspective movements 2 (Innig), 5 (Einfach), 7 (Nicht schnell) he played it as if he was the composer improvising at the piano. In movement 6 (Sehr rasch), he highlighted the fever and almost hallucinatory nature of the music. Kenner’s playing of movement 8 (Frisch) brought out the feeling of a chase in the music.
In the opening movement of the second section (Sehr rasch), Kenner captured my attention with the skills of a master storyteller. Moreover, he successfully weaved his way through Schumann’s complex web of counterpoint and syncopation in the movement. He effectively captured the ticklish humour in movement 3 (Mit Humor) and the more unbuttoned hilarity in the outer sections of movement 4 (Wild und lustig). Movement 5 (Zart und singend) was played with disarming simplicity as well as the most gorgeous singing tone. The coda was played with sudden indelible warmth. Kenner played the B section of movement 6 (Frisch) with a lovely bel canto, highlighting this aria-like nature of the music. I found his playing of the 8th movement (Wie aus der Ferne) incredibly moving. The return of the theme from movement 2 of the first section brought us back to the dream-like nature of the music. In the final movement (Nicht schnell) Kenner kept us in this beautiful dreamlike state by drawing us even more into the innermost core of Schumann’s fertile imagination. This was truly masterful and very moving interpretation of this exceedingly difficult score.
Kenner devoted the second half of his programme to some earlier mazurkas and a polonaise by Chopin. But he opened with the very popular and familiar Nocturne in E minor, Op. posth., not falling into the trap of sentimentality but infusing the music with dignity and depth of feeling.
In the mazurkas, Kenner highlighted the joy, innocence and, in some cases, the earthiness of these early composition, before the composer was exposed to the tragedy and vicissitudes of the world outside Poland that were to colour his later works. Again, Kenner played these dances without pause, and as if he were improvising at the piano; his understanding of, as well as his uncanny feeling and love for this music, playing them to the manor born, so to speak, was infectious.
I was especially grateful to him for concluding his recital with the very rarely played Variations on "Là ci darem la mano", Op. 2. This was of course the piece that so captured the imagination of Robert Schumann, for him to coin the now classic phrase, “Hats off, gentlemen – a genius”, in his review of the work. Again, Kenner obviously identified with this music, playing it not only with towering and rousing virtuosity, but also with a great sense of fantasy. His interpretation prompted in my mind of the words of Schumann in his fanciful and imaginative review, of how the dramatis personae in Mozart’s opera came alive before his eyes when he hears this music.
Kenner remained with Chopin in his encore, and generously gave us the (Liszt) transcription of Wiosna (Spring), one of the composer’s Polish songs, playing it with the same directness and simplicity that appear to be the hallmark of his music making.
During this time of isolation, I am indeed grateful for these musicians and music festivals for making available these memorable musical experiences, and I ponder with wonder at the technology that enables us to bring such beauty to every corner of the globe.