New York Times - Monday, July 23, 2007 - Written by Steve Smith

From Russia With Buzz: A Pianist Inspires Passion

The scene at Mannes College the New School for Music on Friday night was one of mild urgency, if not exactly chaos. The occasion was a recital by the Russian pianist Olga Kern, presented by the school’s invaluable International Keyboard Institute & Festival. Near the appointed hour the Mannes Concert Hall was filled to near capacity. But a sizable number of would-be patrons lingered in the lobby, hoping to be squeezed in.

The festival’s chief attraction is a series of evening concerts that allow the public to hear pianists in a room large enough to hold some 300 patrons yet intimate enough to qualify as a chamber-music setting. Demand increases sharply when a bona fide star is on hand; a recital by the Canadian virtuoso Marc-André Hamelin scheduled for Saturday sold out quickly. To judge by the mild frenzy, Ms. Kern, a gold medalist at the 2001 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, is becoming that kind of star.

She is undeniably an exciting player despite her taciturn stage presence. She demonstrated abundant power in Chopin’s Sonata No. 2, at times threatening to fly off the rails during the opening movement. The opening of the scherzo lacked clarity, but there was a supple beauty in the way she lingered over the movement’s wistful second subject; it was less a waltz than a narcotic recollection of one. The dolorous Funeral March was well judged; the finale, a rousing but indistinct blur.

Chopin’s Bolero in C (Op. 19) was a marvel of gamboling rhythms and precise articulation. But Ms. Kern’s phrasing in the Polonaise in A flat (Op. 53) seemed choppy and mannered, even at the breakneck tempos she chose.

A change of gowns for the second half elicited a gasp of pleasure from audience members. Ms. Kern brought a suitably lyrical touch to Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 2, including gracious descending cascades in the opening allegro agitato. What was missing was a sense of continuity; the work sounded like a series of disconnected episodes and bone-rattling climaxes. Still, it drew lusty shouts of approval.

Ms. Kern was at her best in Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, here outfitted with a tricky Rachmaninoff cadenza. Freed of rhetorical demands, her playing danced and stomped. She offered three encores: an elegant Scarlatti Sonata in D minor (K. 9), Rachmaninoff’s flashy transcription of the gopak from Mussorgsky’s “Sorochintsy Fair,” and Moritz Moszkowski’s scintillating étude “Sparks.” Each showed an amiability that had been in short supply during the main event.

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