Presented by the Carmel Music Society, Russian-American pianist Olga Kern made a triumphant return yesterday afternoon to Sunset Center in Carmel. Kern was elegantly dressed in a flowing red designer gown for the first half of the recital and in a flowing silver designer gown for the second half. Not only did her appearance make quite an impression, but so did her stage presence. An engaging smile and a charming manner when speaking to the audience won us over before she even played a note.
Peter Thorp, President of the Carmel Music Society had added some new technology to the afternoon’s recital. A video camera suspended over the piano keyboard projected a view from above of the pianist’s hands during the performances onto a screen over the stage. Thus, we could enjoy a side view from the audience plus a video top view of the pianist’s hands.
After a warmup performance of a rarely-heard Beethoven set of Variations on a Theme by Salieri, Kern settled in to perform one of the greatest works Beethoven ever composed for the keyboard, the Sonata No. 21 in C Major, Op. 53, known as the “Waldstein.” We heard a masterful performance of the first movement that held our attention throughout Beethoven’s presentation of compelling musical ideas, its powerful development section and satisfying recapitulation and coda. The brief second movement, Adagio Molto, served as an introduction to the concluding Rondo that was capped off by the Prestissimo finale. Kern brought a lot of charm, vitality and easy virtuosity to her performance of this sonata and made it look easy in the process.
There is an important and difficult passage towards the end of the final movement where Beethoven asks the pianist to perform prestissimo octave glissandos alternating in contrary motion between the hands. Although a single-note glissando is so easy, even your great aunt Gertie could do it, octave glissandos require a good deal of skill — and, remember, we don’t want a lot of blood all over the keys. There are two practical ways of executing an octave glissando — bending back the thumb toward the center of the hand and stretching out the fifth finger so that the thumbnail and fifth finger skate along the keys, or keeping the thumb straight and slightly arched so that the fleshy part of the thumb and the extended fifth finger glide like a snowplow.
Normally, we wouldn’t have been able to discern from the audience which method Kern used, but thanks to Peter Thorp’s setting up the overhead video camera, we had a bird’s-eye view. Thus, we were able to observe in glorious color that Olga Kern adopted the “bent thumb” version and made the octave glissandos look like child’s play, which they most assuredly are not.
Ending the first half of the program Kern performed the three Gershwin Preludes, to which she added Earl Wild’s difficult transcription of “Fascinating Rhythm.” Hello, Guinness Book of World Records, I believe we have a new world’s speed record for the fastest Gershwin keyboard playing ever heard, even considerably faster than Gershwin’s own rushed recorded performances. It normally takes 20 to 25 seconds to say “The Lord’s Prayer.” Imagine speeding it up and reducing its duration to seven seconds — this was the kind of dizzying speed we heard yesterday afternoon. As a stunt, it succeeded, but at the expense of musical values.
After intermission Kern treated us to a selection of Russian composers, and in this repertoire her playing took on a new and even more masterful significance. Her magnificent commanding performances of Rachmaninoff’s Moment Musical in E minor, Barcarolle and the Polichinelle were revelatory, both for the virtuosity and the deep expressive meanings her playing revealed..
The next work on the program, Tchaikovsky’s Meditation in D, Op. 72, No. 5, is a work most of the audience had never heard before. It began like a gentle and soulful “Song without Words” à la Mendelssohn, but developed tension and majesty as it progressed and finally developed into a work of considerable substance.
The following group of two Scriabin Etudes, Op. 42 No. 4 and Op. 42, No. 5, was a revelation of Kern’s deep commitment to Scriabin and her skill in balancing the contrasting elements of the deeply lyrical and dazzling technical demands so often found in Scriabin’s piano works. There was soul and profound emotional feeling in her playing of these two works.
Ending the program Olga Kern gave us a dazzling performance of Balakirev’s non plus ultra virtuoso masterpiece, Islamey, and it was a knockout. After an extended and vociferous standing ovation, Kern spoke to the audience saying, “Now we come to the fun part of a concert” and gave us three encores: a virtuosic performance of Prokofiev’s Etude in D minor, a charming rendition of Anatoly Lyadov’s The Music Box, Op. 32, and a dazzling rendition of Rachmaninoff’s transcription of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee.”
Let’s hope that Olga Kern will return in the not-too-distant future and bring us some more musical treasures from her vast repertoire.