By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh
There were two beautiful things to look at on stage at Toronto’s Koerner Hall Nov. 16: Russian pianist Olga Kern and the newly handcrafted Yamaha CFX 9-foot concert grand.
Together, the two created a wealth of sounds that, depending on where you sat in the hall, either gave you goose bumps, made your pupils dilate, popped your veins through your sleeves or all of the above.
Kern, 35, gave a solo recital for the Canadian launch of Yamaha’s latest beast in a program that began with Haydn’s Piano Sonata No. 50 in C major, Hob. XVI: 50, Schumann’s Carnaval and, after intermission, finished with Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor and Balakirev’s Islamey: Oriental Fantasy.
For the most part, Kern delivered the entire program with such incredible speed, power and absolutely to-die-for techniques that there was little room for anything else other than to sit tight, buckle up and pray she doesn’t crash. A normal human being would have tangled up those fingers in her chosen speed — the fastest of anything I have ever heard (live or recorded), including the slow movements — but Kern’s fingers buttered over the shining keys with a kind of graceful and exact execution that only she can pull off.
Her Haydn sonata was bouncy and youthful, while pregnant with an unmistakable articulation and individuality that is classy on the outside and bad-girl on the inside. In Carnaval, those fat opening chords in Preambule sounded under her hands blatantly glorious and impressive, even though there were no big movements coming from her slender arms and model-thin body. Her expressive and imaginative musical ideas shone through vividly through all of the contrasting scenes that Schumann had so ingeniously composed, ending triumphantly with theDavidsbundler march.
The all-Russian second half of the program got under way with a change of evening gown and a loud cheer from the audience. Kern tackled Rachmaninoff’s stormy elephant-like sonata in a fierce manner with aggressive attacks in the lower register of the piano, which buzzed in agony at times. The pure intensity of Kern’s playing here was enough to set the piano on fire, but her lyricism in the second movement would just as soon calm the tsunami into a placid lake. She was that good, and capable of anything.
In Balakirev’s virtuosic showpiece Islamey, Kern was a firecracker in full speed from beginning to end. The unstoppable rush of her performance took the audiences’ breaths away, making them stand on their feet, while the pianist indulged them, and herself, with four fabulous encores that included Rachmaninoff’s C-sharp minor prelude and Moment Musical No. 4.
As for the CFX, it did whatever Kern wanted it to do.