The pianist, making her debut at UW World Series, played the not-often-heard Variations on a Theme of Salieri by Beethoven, and showed her chops on Charles-Valentin Alkan.
Antonio Salieri probably did not murder Mozart, though it has made a good story (think the movie “Amadeus”). He was very much present in musical life in Mozart’s time and a composer himself of no mean ability. On her program at Meany Hall Thursday night, pianist Olga Kern included a set of Variations on a Theme of Salieri by his student Beethoven, a work not often heard. This is a pity. It’s Beethoven in lighter mode, with only one variation delving deeper into drama and undercurrents.
The theme is simple, a fun and lively little melody, and the 10 variations are a workout for the pianist, requiring fine technique and considerable control of articulation, as clarity at that speed is essential — which for Kern was no problem at all.
Kern, who in 2001 was the first woman in more than 30 years to win gold in the Cliburn International Competition, has had a notable career, but this was her first appearance on the UW President’s Piano Series. And an appearance it was. Clothing usually has no place in a review, but Kern’s dresses (she changed at intermission) would have been standouts on the Oscar red carpet.
Her playing was equally spectacular. As well as the Beethoven, she chose Etude in G Major by Charles-Valentin Alkan, a contemporary of Chopin well-known in the 1830s and 1840s whose music fell into eclipse shortly after and never recovered. This work is clearly a study to teach close, fast finger work with the right hand, and while interesting to hear once, doesn’t have enough variety to make it compelling.
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Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, “Funeral March,” took central place in the program. Kern is a decisive, powerful player and she gave this sonata considerable heft, from its portentous opening chords, through unsettling almost eerie moments to majesty and a brief moment of hope. In the quieter, more lyrical and flowing moments, Kern played with exquisite nuance and shadings, a contrast to the fast, tense moments that abound in this work.
She chose to stay entirely with Rachmaninoff for the second half of the program, first three “Etudes-Tableaux,” Op. 39, No. 9 and Op. 33, Nos. 5 and 7; then nine of his Preludes, and ending with one of the composer’s “Moments Musicaux.”
Rachmaninoff delighted in writing works that highlighted his own amazing technique, and all of the pieces Kern played on this half of the program required his level of dexterity to play them well, in order to differentiate between each note when there are torrents of them at great speed. Rachmaninoff included a wide variety of emotional colors, but while Kern found these in the quieter moments, her fast playing seemed less nuanced, less shaded, with less dynamic range.
To a large extent, this was a bravura program and the audience loved it and brought Kern back for several encores, but more soul in her playing wouldn’t have come amiss.