Krzysztof Penderecki

Krzysztof Penderecki
Krzysztof Penderecki (1933-2020) conducting his oratorio "Seven Gates of Jerusalem" at the Winter Palace, St Petersburg, in 2001. Photo by Dmitry Lovetsky

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Frédéric Chopin: Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor & other works – Olga Kern, Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, Antoni Wit (Audio video)

The Russian-born pianist Olga Kern won the 2001 Van Cliburn competition. She has a formidable technique – she has been quoted as saying "I play strong like a man but feel like a woman" – and while her Chopin certainly has a steely muscularity, I find her playing undeniably accomplished yet disappointingly uninvolving. In the E minor Concerto, recorded "live" over two concerts, there is a curious lack of drive, energy and brilliance to Kern's passagework in the outer movements that outweighs some finely turned phrasing. The slow movement, too, while seeking inward reverie, comes across as unimaginative and plain-speaking, and the support of Antoni Wit's Warsaw band needs a stronger dynamic bite. Listen to Martha Argerich (a pianist who really does "play strong like a man but feel like a woman") and you experience a charisma, temperament and exploratory spontaneity – reinforced by a greater range of dynamics, inflection and instrumental colour – that eludes Kern. In the studio-made solo fillers Kern embraces a richer expressive diversity, but these performances still blow hot and cold. The F minor Fantasie is taken very slowly, but Kern can't sustain the brooding intensity of the opening and her reading ultimately loses structural coherence, almost grinding to a halt at the Lento sostenuto (from 7:49). Kern's ultra-secure left-hand octaves in the A flat Polonaise are stunning, but elsewhere her rubato seems forced and arbitrary. The Fantasie-Impromptu displays greater flair and authority, but overall Kern's Chopin rarely rises above the commonplace. Good sound, especially in the solo items.

Source: Tim Parry (

Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)

1. Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor, Op.11 (1830)

i. Allegro maestoso
ii. Larghetto
iii. Rondo: Vivace

Olga Kern, piano

Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra
Conductor: Antoni Wit

2. Fantaisie in F minor, Op.49 (1841)
3. Bolero, Op.19 (1833)
4. Fantaisie-Impromptu in C sharp minor, Op. posth. 66 (1834)
5. Polonaise in A flat major, Op.53 (1842)

Olga Kern, piano

Recorded November 8-9, 2004 at Irvine Barclay Theatre, Irvine, CA (tracks 1-3), and January 30 - February 2, 2005 at Air Studios, Lyndhurst Hall, London (tracks 4-7)

Harmonia mundi 2006

(HD 1080p – Audio video)

Portrait of Chopin, 1829
In his art at its finest, Chopin represents the marriage of public and private, a reconciliation of extrovert and introspective. Often, in both solo compositions and concerted works, contemplative pages balance and bank the fires of virtuosity, and this potent amalgam helped make the composer into society's darling and a favored pianist of the Parisian tout le monde. With a gift to not just create stylistic polarities but effortlessly to meld them – technical extravaganzas can have moments of pathos, and inward-looking works are rarely lacking in panache – he was not merely poet or showman, but both of these at once.

Chopin's breakthrough work, his passport from the provinces to Paris, was the Piano Concerto No.1, in E minor. Its idyllic slow movement shines with lyrical ardor, with sentiments to be later explored in the Nocturnes and other miniatures, and its finale is a rousing krakowiak, but the first movement pushes boundaries. Opening with an assertive orchestral introduction of symphonic sweep, it forsakes conventional sonata form with its customary expectations for a more idiosyncratic scenario that reveals itself gradually, incrementally, over time.

If the movement's plan was in some ways experimental (for more, see Chopin, Jim Samson, p. 49, Oxford University Press, 1996), Tovey, ever astute, called it "suicidal" (Donald Francis Tovey, Essays in Musical Criticism, vol. 3, p. 103, Oxford University Press, London, 1936), and though his observation has merit, we are struck less by the movement's blemishes than by “the beauties of (its) individual moments... for particular felicities of melody, harmony, and texture which we identify retrospectively as Chopinesque..." (Chopin, Samson, p. 50).

Among the compositions for solo piano, Chopin's Fantasy, Op.49, is perhaps the most freighted with feelings. It's full of character, but full of characters as well, and commentators from the first sensed that the work masks a hidden agenda. Schumann, for instance, speculated that "We can merely guess what images were before Chopin's eyes when he wrote it. They could not have been joyous" (in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik). And James Huneker, the composer's first American biographer, believed he knew the story, which allegedly had been passed down from Chopin to Liszt to virtuoso pianist Vladimir de Pachmann to Huneker himself, though his scenario seems implausible (see Chopin, The Man and His Music, James Huneker, p. 216, Dover Publications, New York, 1966).

Yet Huneker's basic estimation is correct: "Chopin has never before maintained so artistically... such a level of strong passion, mental power and exalted euphony. (The Fantasy) is his largest canvas, and though there are no long-breathed periods such as in the B flat minor Scherzo, the phraseology is amply broad, without padding or paragraphs. The rapt interest is not relaxed until the final bar. This transcendental work more nearly approaches Beethoven in its unity, its formal rectitude and its brave economy of thematic material" (Huneker, op. cit., p. 217).

Richly distinctive, this material evokes a dramatis personae, some bold, others mild: there's the deliberate theme at the onset, where two measures of quiet questioning, built on arpeggiation, are followed by two measures of legato response (mm. 1-4); the impetuous downward-sweeping theme which is interrupted by fluttering figuration (m. 93); the insistent march with its memorable "snap" at the start of the third bar (m. 127ff); the lento sostenuto, the work's emotional heart (m. 199), in B major, the remotest of keys from the tonic F minor, but effortlessly reached through enharmonic modulation.

To navigate among themes, Chopin has two favorite paths: he alters direction with seemingly improvised arpeggios (m. 43ff, m. 179ff) and he pivots dramatically with unison octaves (m. 52f, 153f, 197f, 233f). This latter gesture, which is often experienced with thunderbolt force, recalls similar strokes in the first movement of Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto (mm. 166 and 424), where repeated intervals, tumbling through three octaves, effect quick and dramatic changes of texture and tone.

Two of the works heard here have entered the pantheon of Chopin's best-loved compositions: the Fantasy-Impromptu, Op.66, and the Polonaise, Op.53. Works of verve and elegance, they should not be disparaged for their popularity.

The Fantasy-Impromptu has grown so familiar that we take for granted its impeccable craftsmanship. (It forever will be known as the melodic source for "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" by pop tunesmith Harry Carroll.) Notice, for instance, how the initial texture is rhythmically roiled; stability is sabotaged by the juxtaposition of three notes against four (mm. 5-12) and by phrases that spring to life on the second sixteenth note of the bar (m. 5ff). The texture, however, soon is clarified (m. 13), when a sustained E-major melody is sounded by accented notes that fall squarely on the beat.

Notice, too, the artful presentation of the moderato cantabile theme. A lesser composer might have constructed the two halves of this phrase (mm. 43-50) in parallel fashion, with the B flat that starts the second half sounding on the downbeat of measure 47. Chopin, however, anticipates this expected entrance by a half-measure (mm. 46) and in so doing creates an off-balance, appealing phrase.

If the dreamy moderato cantabile of the Fantasy-Impromptu suggests a composer lost in reverie, the A flat major Polonaise is emblematic of an energized Chopin. As a dance form meant to reflect national pride and national pain, the Polonaise enjoyed a "perceived status as a kind of pianistic expression of Polish history" (Samson, p. 150), and Chopin here is at his most patriotic.

After sixteen measures of dominant preparation, the theme arrives with pomp and swagger. Punctuated by three knuckle-busting runs in octaves (mm. 30, 46, 78), it's developed until measure 81, when the work takes a picaresque turn. Its gestures suggest the battlefield, complete with echoes of the "booming cannons and reverberating overtones" that Huneker heard in the Op.44 Polonaise (Huneker, op. cit., p. 187). Over a left-hand fusillade of sixteenth notes in octaves, the work whips up a fine patriotic fury. When the polonaise theme returns, triumphantly fortissimo (m. 155), the battle, we assume, has been won.

Altogether lighter is Chopin's unique, and irresistible, Bolero, Op.19. Octave Gs grab our ear at the start, and the figuration for the next 30 measures prepares a delicate wisp of a waltz, fragile in both tonality and phraseology. The bolero itself begins in the minor mode and ends in the major – it's in A, though it makes a notable enharmonic excursion to A flat – and despite being slight of substance, it exemplifies how entertainment and a higher art can, wonderfully, be one and the same.

Source: George Gelles (CD Booklet)

Photo by Fernando Baez
Russian-American pianist Olga Kern is now recognized as one of her generation's great artists. With her vivid stage presence, passionately confident musicianship and extraordinary technique, the striking pianist continues to captivate fans and critics alike. Olga Kern was born into a family of musicians with direct links to Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov and began studying piano at the age of five. She jumpstarted her U.S. career with her historic Gold Medal at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas as the first woman to do so in more than thirty years.

Steinway Artist and First prize winner of the Rachmaninov International Piano Competition at the age of seventeen, Olga Kern is a laureate of many international competitions and tours throughout Russia, Europe, the United States, Japan, South Africa and South Korea. In 2016 she served as Jury Chairman of both the Seventh Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition and the first Olga Kern International Piano Competition, where she also holds the title of Artistic Director.

Kern serves as Artist in Residence to the San Antonio Symphony's 2017-2018 season, appearing in two subscription weeks as well as solo recital. She will also perform with Madison Symphony, Rochester Philharmonic, Copenhagen Philharmonic, Austin Symphony, New Mexico Philharmonic, Arizona Musicfest Orchestra, Colorado Symphony, and Hawaii Symphony Orchestra. Olga Kern will premiere her first American concerto Barber's Piano Concerto with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Leonard Slatkin. She will give recitals at the University of Arizona, the Lied Center in Lincoln, NE, the Sanibel Music Festival in Sanibel, FL, and abroad in Mainz and Turin. Additionally, Olga Kern will perform in the Huntington Estate Music Festival with Musica Viva in Australia.

Highlights of the previous season include her Chinese debut with the National Youth Orchestra of China tour, concerts with Pacific Symphony, Colorado Symphony, the State of Mexico Symphony Orchestra, Stuttgart Philharmonic, Tivoli Symphony Orchestra, and La Jolla Music Festival, and recitals in Santa Fe, New Haven, Scottsdale, and San Francisco. Olga Kern opened the Baltimore Symphony's 2015-2016 centennial season with Marin Alsop. Other season highlights included returns to the Royal Philharmonic with Pinchas Zukerman, Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice with Giancarlo Guerrero, a month-long tour of South Africa for concerts with the Cape and KwaZulu Natal philharmonics, an Israeli tour with the Israel Symphony, solo recitals at Sarasota's Van Wezel Hall, New York's 92nd Street Y, and the University of Kansas' Lied Center, and recitals with Renée Fleming in Carnegie Hall and Berkeley.

In recent seasons, Olga Kern has performed with Tokyo's NHK Symphony, Orchestre National De Lyon, Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo, the symphonies of Detroit for Tchaikovsky Piano Concertos 1, 2 & 3, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Nashville, Colorado, Madison, and Austin, and gave recitals in New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Louisville, and alongside Renée Fleming and Kathleen Battle. Olga Kern's performance career has brought her to many of the world's most important venues, including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, Salzburger Festspielhaus, La Scala in Milan, Tonhalle in Zurich, and the Châtelet in Paris.

Olga Kern's discography includes Harmonia Mundi recordings of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No.1 with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and Christopher Seaman (2003), her Grammy Nominated recording of Rachmaninov's Corelli Variations and other transcriptions (2004), a recital disk with works by Rachmaninov and Balakirev (2005), Chopin's Piano Concerto No.1 with the Warsaw Philharmonic and Antoni Wit (2006), Brahms Variations (2007) and a 2010 release of Chopin Piano Sonatas Nos. 2 and 3 (2010). Most recently, SONY released their recording of Olga Kern performing the Rachmaninov Sonata for Cello and Piano with cellist Sol Gabetta. She was also featured in the award-winning documentary about the 2001 Cliburn Competition, Playing on the Edge, as well as Olga's Journey, Musical Odyssey in St Petersburg and in They Came to Play. In 2012, Olga and her brother, conductor and composer, Vladimir Kern, co-founded the "Aspiration" foundation whose objective is to provide financial and artistic assistance to musicians throughout the world.

In 2017, Olga Kern was gratified to receive the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, joining other honorees including Rosa Parks, Buzz Aldrin, Coretta Scott King, and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. This commendation recognizes Americans who "embody the spirit of America in their salute to tolerance, brotherhood, diversity, and patriotism".


Photo by Dario Acosta

See also

Lukas Geniušas plays Frédéric Chopin – XVI International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, October 2010 (Audio videos)

Frédéric Chopin: 24 Préludes, Op.28 – Yuja Wang (HD 1080p)

Frédéric Chopin: Études – Jan Lisiecki (Audio video)

Frédéric Chopin: Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor – Evgeny Kissin, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta

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