Piano Recital: Olga Kern
Rachmaninoff / Gershwin / Scriabin / Balakirev

Aula der Universität, Zurich, 2019-03-27

4-star rating

2019-04-29 — Original posting

Olga Kern (© Dale Steadman)
Olga Kern (© Dale Steadman)
Eine ausdrucksvolle, impulsive Aufführung mit hohen technischen Herausforderungen — Zusammenfassung

In ihrem Programm präsentierte die in Moskau geborene, heute in New York lebende Olga Kern Kompositionen russischer und amerikanischer Komponisten des 19./20. Jahrhunderts. Ihre Stärke liegt in langen, aufbauenden Phrasen, dynamischer Entwicklung, grossen melodischen Bögen. Harmonischer, klangvoller Fluss schienen ihr wichtiger als das akribische-detaillierte Eintauchen in die Partitur mit dem Herausheben von Motiven durch kleinräumige Artikulation. Dieser grosszügige, erfrischende Schwung liess Olga Kerns Interpretationen nie akademisch, trocken klingen.

Ihre Darbietung war hochvirtuos, akrobatisch, brilliant, oft feuerwerksgleich. Sie vermied auffällige Gestik, Mimik, blieb in ihrem Auftreten souverän.

Table of Contents


The concert series Musik an der ETH, organized by Musical Discovery recently changed its name into Musik an ETHZ und UZH—Music at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and at the University of Zurich. The latter indicates a recent expansion in the scope of the organization’s concerts. In fact, this was the first concert to be held at Zurich University. The Aula is located in the main building in the original location of the university. It’s by far not the biggest hall, but rather a historic venue that serves celebrations and lectures by special guests. In fact, this room is the very location where on 1946-09-19, then already out of office, Sir Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965) held his historic speech, proclaiming the idea of a unified Europe (“a kind of United States of Europe”).

The Aula as Concert Venue

The concert was given in a flat room with a semi-circular back-end (two floors above the main entrance to the building). In the center of the front wall with its big fresco painting (between the two entrances) there is a lecture podium. For this concert, the piano—a Steinway B-211—stood in front of the podium. The auditorium offers space for around 250 people (not counting the two small lateral balconies).

Aula, Zurich University (UZH), 2019-03-27 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Aula, Zurich University (UZH), 2019-03-27 (© Rolf Kyburz)

In this event, there were around 150 – 180 people in the audience—almost twice as many as in a typical concert in the Semper-Aula at the ETH (which only holds audiences up to 99).

I was still fighting a cold, so I took a seat on the right-hand side, in the rear of the central block.

The Artist: Olga Kern

The Russian-American pianist Olga Kern (*1975) was born in Moscow, into a musical family (see also Wikipedia). She started playing the piano at age 5 and had her first piano education in Moscow. After a first competition success at age 11, she won first prize at the First Rachmaninoff International Piano competition for young pianists in Moscow, at 17. She continued her studies at the Moscow Conservatory and at the Accademia Pianistica “Incontri col Maestro” in Imola.

Olga Kern’s international breakthrough came when she won the Eleventh Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2001, in Fort Worth, Texas—as the first woman in over 30 years. She played herself into people’s heart—and made the USA her permanent residence. According to Wikipedia, she now lives in New York City, from where she tours the world as concert pianist. In 2017, she joined the piano faculty of the Manhattan School of Music.

In 2016, Olga Kern has founded her own piano competition, the “Olga Kern International Piano Competition“, being held every three years in Albuquerque, New Mexico.


Olga Kern presented a highly virtuosic program with compositions by Rachmaninoff, Gershwin, Scriabin, and Balakirev—and she ended the concert with four encores — see the post outline above.

As I also wanted to give the context of the pieces that Olga Kern performed, I have marked my actual performance comments with color. All photos below are my own (© Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved).

Concert & Review

Rachmaninoff: 3 Études-Tableaux

Olga Kern started her recital with thee Études-Tableaux (“study-pictures”) by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943). The composer meant these to be “picture pieces”, essentially “musical evocations of external visual stimuli”—though Rachmaninoff did not reveal any information on these stimuli. Rachmaninoff composed two sets of Études-Tableaux: the first set (with a somewhat convoluted publishing history) is op.33 and the second set appeared as “9 Études-Tableaux “, op.39. I have commented on both sets and their publishing history in a report from an earlier concert on 2017-03-17. That concert featured the Étude-Tableau in D major, op.39/9, along with 6 other pieces from the two sets, but not including the two from op.33 that Olga Kern performed.

From 9 Études-Tableaux op.39: Étude-Tableau in D major, op.39/9: Allegro moderato, Tempo di marcia

The recital started with the last one of Rachmaninoff’s Études-Tableaux, the No.9 from op.39, composed in 1917: a spectacular, virtuosic beginning, despite the moderato in the annotation! My impressions from this beginning, besides the obvious one, Olga Kern’s stunning pianistic prowess:

  • the pianist was able to produce an amazing, full-sounding sonority on this mid-size grand piano (Steinway B-211)
  • in the middle part (L’istesso tempo), Olga Kern underlined phrasing and dynamics with distinct, pronounced rubato / agogics
  • already here I noted that the artist’s focus was on phrasing, dynamic developments / arches, on maintaining melodic / harmonic flow and sonority—not particularly on dissecting the score into motifs, or, more generally, on meticulous articulation at the level of motifs. The later works in the program confirmed this: throughout the evening, there wasn’t a moment where the music sounded dry, academic.

One snag that did not affect all pieces to the same degree: momentarily, the tuning of the instrument sounded sub-optimal, especially in the bass. That issue was mostly irrelevant in rapid, virtuosic passages, but affected some of the occasional resting chords

Which Pieces from the 8 Études-Tableaux op.33?

The history of op.33 is confusing: 1911, Rachmaninoff wrote 9 pieces. Six of these (1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 8 in the list below) were published (numbered 1 – 6, of course). The No.4 from the original 9 was withdrawn by the composer, later revised and published as op.39/6. The original No.3 and No.5 re-joined the set (as 3 and 4 in the list below). I’m sticking to that original numbering, omitting the No.4; some editions have the pieces re-numbered from 1 up to 8.

The program for this concert referred to “op.33/5 in G minor” and “op.33/7 in E♭ minor”—a mix-up, as it turned out, as the sequence was the other way around. Also, the program used the revised scheme using the numbers 1 – 8. In the above, original numbering, the pieces played were op.33/8 in G minor, followed by op.33/6 in E♭ minor (highlighted in the list above).

Étude-Tableau in G minor, op.33/7: Moderato

A lyrical piece, with long, intense and melancholic cantilenas / melody lines wandering through the voices. Wide dynamic arches, in the second part also with fast garlands of rapid figurations. Full of warm expression, overall, only hampered by occasional tuning oscillations on intermediate resting chords…

Étude-Tableau in E♭ minor, op.33/5: Non allegro — Presto

Olga Kern concluded the virtuosic opening of her recital with another, highly effective, acrobatic piece, true fireworks of fast broken chords, with melodic fragments flashing up through chord sequences in the left hand. Very fluent, almost playful, seemingly effortless—very impressive playing!

Rating: ★★★★

Rachmaninoff: 8 Préludes

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943) altogether composed 24 Préludes, covering all major and minor keys (following a tradition that goes back to baroque times). Different from other composers, though, he did that spread over three opus numbers, and not in any recognizable order:

The actual sequence of the eight selected Préludes followed the subtitles below:

Prélude in C major, op.32/1: Allegro vivace

The fact that the Préludes are shorter than the Êtudes-Tableaux by no means implies that they are any easier to play! No.1 features an acrobatic, arduous chain of quaver triplets. In Olga Kern’s interpretation, this presented a rapid flow of rhapsodic, full-sounding waves: impressive sonority from this instrument! — ★★★★

Prélude in G major, op.32/5: Moderato

The fifth Prélude from op.32 sounds so easy, playful, serene, full of arabesques, even when it goes through a short climax. However, that impression is deceptive! With the exception of a few bars, this Prélude has a continuous chain of rolling semiquaver quintuplets in the left hand. In apparent, total independence, the other hand alternates between 2+1 triplets, demisemiquaver ornaments (arabesques), and finally semiquaver quadruplets.

Olga Kern indeed made the beginning (the left hand quintuplets with embedded crotchet bass line) sound easy, simple. However, I wasn’t entirely happy with the 2+1 triplets in the right hand: somehow, I didn’t get this typical “triplet feeling”, as some of the triplet figures seemed slightly distorted. I could not analize this in detail, but some seemed to tend towards duplet, others may have tended towards 3+1 quadruplets.

Was this maybe even deliberate? I could picture an argument stating that the composer wanted this to be rhythmically “suspended”. Rachmaninoff just writes dolce, hence there is no indication to that effect. If the issue were in the rhythmic independence of the two hands,, i.e., the “incompatible” rhythms interfering with each other, then I personally would prefer the triplets to feel like that. Conversely, if there were irregularities in the left-hand quintuplets, these would not be traceable by the (ordinary / average) listener. — ★★★½

Prélude in A minor, op.32/8: Vivo

Brief, virtuosic, brilliant! The pianist’s focus seemed on flow, expression and full sonority, rather than for the ultimate transparency. Certainly, Olga Kern’s interpretation can not be called “dry”! — ★★★★½

Prélude in C♯ minor, op.3/2

This is Rachmaninoff’s most famous Prélude. It doesn’t feature the intricate rhythmic difficulties of those in op.32. However, in this recital, it challenged at least the instrument with its enormous dynamic bandwidth from ppp up to sffff (!). Quite obviously, the composer wrote this with a big(ger), full-sounding concert grand in mind. Here, initially, the ff felt strong, sonorous. But soon, the dynamics felt somewhat restricted. Did the pianist fear to loyse sonority in the pp / ppp? At the upper end, she certainly reached the limits of the instrument, where the sound started to be distorted. Somehow, the dynamic relations / proportions didn’t seem fully satisfactory. In the louder passages, the marginal intonation in the bass showed up again. Finally: the rallentando towards the final fermata felt a rather strong, if not excessive (my score has no indications for rallentando). — ★★★½

Prélude in C minor, op.23/7: Allegro

Olga Kern focused on the hidden melody within the semiquaver line, and on the crotchet in the left hand, obviously aiming for big, rounded sonority. This went at the expense of the clarity in the semiquaver figures. To me, the soundscape was unexpectedly blurred. I actually wondered whether the pianist consciously or subconsciously used slightly more sustain pedal, in order to compensate for the dynamic shortcomings of the instrument? — ★★★½

Prélude in B minor, op.32/10: Lento

Somehow, the first part (with the punctuated motifs) did not “pull me in”. I’m not sure whether this was in parts due to the restricted sonority of the instrument. The pounding bass chords only had limited effect. Things were definitely better starting at the pesante (which of course does not apply to the quaver triplets, but to the heavy bass octaves at the beginning of every bar). Olga Kern formed an impressive, dynamic arch (as much as the instrument permitted), followed by a second, more restricted arch starting at the L’istesso tempo. Sadly, the coda (a tempo, come prima) again exposed tuning weaknesses. — ★★★½

Prélude in G♯ minor, op.32/12: Allegro

A true Prélude—fluent, rounded, harmonious playing, legato soundscape, big phrasing arches. And Olga Kern made this look easy—her playing was unpretentious, devoid of exaggerated gestures, even her mimics & body language remained inconspicuous throughout the recital. — ★★★★

Prélude in G minor, op.23/5: Alla marcia

Besides op.3/2, this certainly one of the most well-known Préludes by Rachmaninoff. After a somewhat retained start, the playing soon was relatively fluent. Olga Kern avoided “technical”, dry articulation, maintained a well-rounded sonority. Sometimes, her rubato felt very strong. That per se did not hurt. However, in the second half, especially after an accelerando, I noted some superficialities in the right-hand semiquaver chord sequences. — ★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★★

Gershwin: 3 Preludes (1926)

George Gershwin (1898 – 1937) first performed his 3 Preludes 1926, in a Hotel in New York. From an original plan to compose 24 Preludes, only 7 reached manuscript stage. The first performance featured five out of these, and finally, only these three Preludes ended up being published:

Prelude No.1 in B♭ major: Allegro ben ritmato e deciso

Olga Kern obviously could not resist adding American Music—from her new home, after all—to the program. And of course, she commands over the necessary technical prowess to master also Jazz-like music with ease. Gershwin’s idiom is undeniably there, the Jazz mood as well. And interestingly, none of the Gershwin pieces showed any sign of bad tuning. Was that because one associates that music with playing on badly tuned instruments in bars and lounges anyway?

Prelude No.2 in C♯ minor: Andante con moto

Strongly swaying agogics in the left hand, and a melancholic, casual, aimless melody line…

Prelude No.3 in E♭ minor: Agitato

The third of the Preludes offers a distinct contrast. It is far less casual, rhythmically vastly more intricate, technically more challenging (not for Olga Kern, of course), and harmonically more advanced. For the most part, that Prelude seems fairly close to one by Rachmaninoff, musically, harmonically. Except for the last page, which invokes a strong Boogie-woogie atmosphere, of course.

Rating: ★★★½

Wild: No.3, “Fascinating Rhythm” from “Seven Virtuoso Études on Popular Songs by George Gershwin”

Earl Wild (1915 – 2010) was an American piano virtuoso. He is most known for his transcriptions of both Jazz and classical (romantic/late romantic) music. His “Seven Virtuoso Études on Popular Songs by George Gershwin“, created 1989, combine classical piano technique with the Jazz elements in George Gershwin‘s music. The third one in these Virtuoso Études is a transcription of one of Gershwin’s most popular songs, Fascinating Rhythm”, originally from 1924, along with “The Man I Love” and “I Got Rhythm“. The latter two are also included in the Seven Virtuoso Études.

The Performance

The Gershwin pieces could be seen as a “step down” from the level of Rachmaninoff’s compositions (at least, they were “very different”). Here, however, the music definitely seemed to have moved into the level of salon pieces. Yes, it was playful, with glittering parades, well-performed, inevitably a strong Jazz component. However, at the same time it was also light-minded, light-weight. I have no doubt that in the USA this is very successful, if not even a must with some audiences—but here? OK, it was fun, but then, there was more music to follow after the intermission… Maybe, the encore section would have been the better place for the pieces by Gershwin and Wild?

Rating: ★★★½

Rachmaninoff: 6 Moment Musicaux, op.16 — No.4 in E minor, Presto

Rachmaninoff’s Moment Musicaux (Шесть музыкальных моментов — Musical Moments), op.16 are compositions from late 1896:

  • No.1 in B♭ minor: Andantino
  • No.2 in E♭ minor: Allegretto
  • No.3 in B minor: Andante cantabile
  • No.4 in E minor: Presto
  • No.5 in D♭ major: Adagio sostenuto
  • No.6 in C major: Maestoso

The Performance

The second part of the recital started with another, extremely virtuosic piece, where the left hand performs a constant chain of semiquaver sextuplets. The notation for the right hand is slightly unclear, in that the double and triple punctuations don’t fall onto the sextuplet pattern ( there is no sextuplet marking for the right hand). So, in these punctuations, it is unclear whether the semiquaver upbeats need to coincide with a sextuplet quaver in the bass, or rather last as long as written. In this performance, in any case, they rather felt as long as triplet quavers (too slow, I think). Olga Kern’s playing was rhapsodic, rather legato than dry. And she focused on phrasing more than on ultimate virtuosic clarity.

Rating: ★★★★

Rachmaninoff: Morceaux de salon, op.10 — No.3, Barcarolle in G minor

The seven Morceaux de salon (Салонные Пьесы — Salon Pieces), op.10 are a creation from 1894:

  • No.1: Nocturne (Ноктюрн) in A minor
  • No.2: Waltz in (Вальс,) A major
  • No.3: Barcarolle (Баркарола) in G minor
  • No.4: Mélodie (Мелодия) in E minor
  • No.5: Humoresque (Юмореска) in G major
  • No.6: Romance (Романс) in F minor
  • No.7: Mazurka (Мазурка) in D♭ major

The Performance

Flowing waves, fluent in the flow (and rubato) across a phrase. Very atmospheric the swaying much slower than Chopin’s Barcarolle. I liked the overall momentum. Really, the focus here was (and must be!) on the “big swaying”, not on dissecting / exposing articulation at the level of motifs.

Rating: ★★★★

Rachmaninoff: Morceaux de fantaisie, op.3 — No.4, Polichinelle in F♯ minor

Rachmaninoff published his Polichinelle (Полишинель) in 1892, as part of his Morceaux de fantaisie, op.3, see the section about Rachmaninoff’s Préludes above. The music refers to the Commedia dell’arte figure Pulcinella. I have briefly referred to this piece in a report from a concert in Zurich on 2016-04-19, where this piece appeared as encore.

The Performance

Highly virtuosic also this—but equally fun, joking, caricature! Is it coincidence that the beginning reminded of segments from “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Modest Mussorgsky (1839 – 1881)? Olga Kern’s performance was excellent, highly virtuosic, with fireworks-like moments—and yet devoid of virtuosic show elements. Fascinating music!

Rating: ★★★★½

Scriabin: 2 Études from op.42

Alexander Scriabin (1872 – 1915) composed his 8 Études, op.42 in 1903. Albeit short, the eight studies are considered important within Scriabin’s oeuvre for piano solo:

I have written about a performance of these very same two Études from op.42 in a review from a concert in Geneva, 4 months ago. That posting also includes the following anecdote: Sergei Rachmaninoff performed concerts in memory of Alexander Scriabin after the composer’s death, hereby including Scriabin’s Études in his recitals. Anecdote has it that Rachmaninoff called the Étude No.5 “difficult” to play. It took him a full hour to learn it!

The Performance

Étude No.4 in F♯ major: Andante

A Prélude of sorts: reflective, serene, truly cantabile! It is beautiful, charming, enchanting music, very atmospheric playing. Along with Étude No.5 one of the true highlights of the recital!

Étude No.5 in C♯ minor: Affanato

Strongly contrasting: highly virtuosic—more than many of Rachmaninoff’s compositions (as the above anecdote indicates!). Despite the technical challenges (requiring wide chords and constantly jumping hands), Olga Kern managed to present a very expressive, highly atmospheric performance. In fact, another, strong highlight of the recital. Just, sadly, the last chord revealed that the tuning further degraded over the recital (which was not unexpected, though).

Rating: ★★★★½

Balakirev: Oriental Fantasy, “Islamey”, op.18

Olga Kern concluded her official program with the Oriental Fantasy “Islamey”, op.18, created 1869 by the Russian composer Mily Balakirev (1837 – 1910). The conductor and pianist Hans von Bülow (1830 – 1894) once declared this to be the “most difficult piece in the entire piano literature”. This certainly no longer holds true (other than for pianists who might want to flatter themselves). To me, this is the second instance where I heard this in concert. The first live encounter was in a Concert in Baden, on 2015-10-31.

The Performance

Compared to other interpretations that I know, Olga Kern’s performance seemed fast, impulsive, with focus on phrasing, rubato, and dynamic arches, rather than on extreme / ultimate clarity. Occasionally, the fast tempo led to some superficialities in right-hand chord sequences. Around the Tranquillo and in the subsequent, lyrical segment, the progressing decay in bass tuning impaired the listening pleasure, I’m afraid. Apart from that one aspect (which isn’t the pianist’s fault), I really liked the flow, the warm, emotional atmosphere in the Andantino espressivo segment. Around the Tempo I sections, the tempo again was slightly excessive—not necessarily in absolute terms, but in that occasional superficialities started to creep in again. But who am I to criticize a pianist in one of the most challenging pieces of all times?? Played perfectly or not—it is fascinating music, for sure; congrats for tackling this!

Rating: ★★★★

Encore 1 — Tchaikovsky: 18 Morceaux, op.72 – No.5, “Méditation

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) completed his 18 Morceaux, op.72 in 1893. These Morceaux (pieces) are Tchaikovsky’s last music for piano solo, and the last piano music that was published during the composer’s lifetime. Olga Kern called it “rarely played these days”—I beg to differ: in my limited experience, whenever pianists (in Europe) perform Russian repertoire, the “Méditation” is one of the most often heard compositions—either as encore, or as part of the main program!

I liked the swaying agogics: very expressive, with big phrases / musical gestures. At the strong (fff) climaxes, the Steinway B-211 definitely sounded too small, limiting the expression (and the listening pleasure). The final chain of trills (fading away into pppp in the score) sounded somewhat too loud, if not coarse, disappearing only in the last two bars. — ★★★½

Encore 2 — Prokofiev: Four Etudes for Piano, op.2 – No.4 in C minor, Presto energico

Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953) composed his Four Etudes for Piano, op.2 in 1909, while he was still a pupil at the St.Petersburg Conservatory. The four studies are

  • No.1 in D minor: Allegro
  • No.2 in E minor: Moderato
  • No.3 in C minor: Andante Semplice
  • No.4 in C minor, Presto energico

Olga Kern livened up with this piece again: enthralling, often even violent, percussive, splashy, obsessive—and short: an excellent encore! — ★★★★

Encore 3 — Lyadov: Muzikalnaya tabakerka (A Musical Snuffbox) for piano in A major, op.32 (1893)

Anatoly Lyadov (1855 – 1914) was a prolific Russian composer. These days, however, his works rarely appear in concerts. One lovely, little miniature that has survived is Muzikalnaya tabakerka (A Musical Snuffbox) for piano in A major, op.32, from 1893.

Simple, playful, lovely, sweet—and definitely sounding like one of these spring-driven little devices, with the slightly irregular flow, turning erratic in the end, stopping just after the last chord. This put a smile on everybody’s face! — ★★★★

Encore 4 — Rimsky-Korsakov: The Flight of the Bumblebee

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844 – 1908) composed his Opera “The Tale of Tsar Saltan” (Сказка о царе Салтане), op.57 in the years 1899 and 1900. It’s an opera with a prologue and four acts (seven scenes). There are four prominent orchestral pieces in the opera; the most well-known among these is “The Flight of the Bumblebee”, from Act III of the opera. In 1929, Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943) created a paraphrase of this piece for piano.

The final was more fun, a last dance, rather than a “serious”, careful performance: very (a little too?) fast, flashy—but at this point, who would seriously mind?? — ★★★½

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