Pure Bliss

Olga Kern, presented by CAMA

At the Lobero Theatre, Friday, April 7.

Reviewed by Gerald Carpenter

Russian pianist Olga Kern understands with awesome precision what a piano recital needs to be like. Put as briefly as possible, there must be technical brilliance, and it must be in the service of romantic passion. Both of these Kern possesses in abundance. Her family claims connection to both Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, and, spurious or not, the spirit of Rachmaninov certainly smiled sadly over the entire concert. Indeed, I could have assembled almost the entire program from the 15-disk RCA set, The Complete Rachmaninov.

Kern opened with two pieces by Mendelssohn, the Variations Sérieuses in D Minor, Opus 54, and the Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Opus 61. The lush Variations, headlong and churning, kept building the set of a Weber opera or the landscape of a Byronic pilgrimage in my head. The Scherzo, in Rachmaninov’s arrangement, was a fairy-tripping delight, as always — the perfect evocation of Shakespeare’s verse.

To close out the first half, Kern chose the Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Opus 35, “Funeral March” by Chopin. Except for violin-piano sonatas by Beethoven and Grieg (with Fritz Kreisler), this majestic work appears to be the only complete grand sonata Rachmaninov ever recorded (he didn’t even record his own, marvelous No. 2). Performances of it are by no means a Russian monopoly, although Rachmaninov, Horowitz, and Ashkenazy seem to have made the most of it throughout the years. Kern’s rendition invites favorable comparison with these three.

After the break, we got a strong dose of undiluted Rachmaninov, the five charming, disparate pieces held together loosely under the title Morceaux de Fantasie (Bits of Fantasy), Opus 3. One of the “bits” happens to be the Prelude in C-sharp Minor, which Rachmaninov wrote as a young man and then had to play every time he got on stage for the rest of his life. There is enough moonstruck adolescent left in me that I never tire of hearing it, but I can see why the composer grew heartily sick of playing it.

Kern concluded with Liszt’s Réminiscences de Don Juan. It was delightful, it was delirious, and it was followed, after tumultuous applause and vulgar whooping, by encores of Rachmaninov and a piece called “The Spinning Wheel” by a composer whose name I didn’t catch.

If pianists would play this kind of program more often, the solo recital wouldn’t be an endangered species.

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