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at the Van Cliburn Competition,

OLGA KERN (Russia), age 26

Olga Kern

This is Olga Kern's second try for the Cliburn gold. She competed in 1997 under her maiden name, Olga Pushechnikova. She commands an enormous technical facility, a rather vivid imagination, and a genuine grasp, not surprisingly, of the traditions that inform works such as Rachmaninoff's magniloquent second sonata and Shostakovich's finger busting B flat major prelude. Like a sergeant major barking orders at her faithful troops, she hauled in one newly detected hidden voice after another, an impressive feat in a work known for its hidden voices. That she has a tendency to pound is perhaps offset by the rhapsodic sensibility, which makes of everything she plays a kind of sinuous taffy, though hardly  to such excess as to destroy rhythm.

While this approach worked just fine in the Rachmaninoff (which nevertheless cried out for an interior quiescence), it failed her in Liszt's transcription of Wagner's Liebestod, where she imposed her Russianisms with the thickness of moldy molasses, banging it mercilessly into the ground and failing to recognize what it's all about, either in compositional or aesthetic categories. Evidently at a loss to produce a robust pianissimo, and terrified to let the music speak of itself, Ms Kern indulged it as a pastiche of forced climaxes, punishing it with quadruple fortes so early on that the principal climax sallied forth with the uneventful demeanor of a stray bullet.  What this work, which owes far more to German than Russian music, demands is patience above all, and a willingness to exploit its rhythm cumulatively without even a hint of fussiness. She also fails to grasp what Karajan did about the Liebestod: that it is by no means an opportunity for thrashing triple fortes about, but a reservoir of quiescence, of dovetailing pianissimos that pulsate tangentially as they hemorrhage one into the other. There is in fact only one major climax in this work; Ms Kern, giving a whole new meaning to vulgarity, offered at least a half dozen in fewer than 9 minutes. Ms Kern couldn't leave well enough alone, torturing the poor thing as if it were a prisoner of war in some archaic Soviet gulag.

She adopted a similar approach to Liszt's technicolor transcription of Mozart's Don Giovanni, demonstrating again her utter, airless seriousness devoid of charm, but not of passion. Unfortunately, it is a way of playing that compromises the discrete intimacies of dialogue, inspired by song, that pretty much defines what the Champagne Aria really is, even in Liszt's tongue-in-cheek re-invention of it.

When, some day, God willing, Ms Kern learns to calm down so as not to be overly impressed with her own technical abilities, then perhaps she will blossom into an artist. For now she only smothers the poetry of the music in a kind of ever present rhetorical white noise. She is clearly  incapable of any real  charm or musical intimacy; she can neither whisper or give voice to the kind of colorful, but eloquent musical speech that music so often demands. Listening to Ms Kern I had the impression of sitting under an incoming jet with a landing gear problem at Kennedy Airport. Make no mistake; she is nothing if not a crowd pleaser (though who isn't at this contest?). But assuaging the superficial desires of a vast audience is not what music making is about; while a pianist such as her fellow competitor Maurizio Baglini draws the listener into the work, Ms Kern beats it mercilessly over the audience's collective head. She would be well advised to spend a few years, locked in a room, listening to nothing but German lieder and French chansons in the silver throats of its greatest interpreters while contemplating what Freud so wisely observed a century ago: namely that delayed gratification is the essence of civilization.


Copyright © 31 May 2001 John Bell Young, Tampa, Florida, USA




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