The Russian pianist, Olga Kern, gold medalist in June at the 11th Van Cliburn International Competition, played hundreds of notes, quickly and effectively, in the second half of her El Camino Center debut recital Friday night.
That half constituted three of the more challenging, finger-throttling works in the repertory: Chopin's F-minor Fantasy, Liszt's "Reminiscences de Don Juan" and Balakirev's notorious "Islamey," which was once considered the most difficult piece ever devised. Kern gave highly communicative, technically effortless, musically stylish readings to all three.
More impressive than conquering and reinterpreting these keyboard icons, however, was the way the 26-year-old began her recital--with handsomely limned, pristine and deeply felt Schubert, in the two Impromptus, in F minor and B-flat, of D. 935.
These masterly performances were models of simplicity, control and concentration, yet they emerged with a sense of spontaneity. Here was a reminder that great pianistic technique often consists of being able to articulate clearly and to use exquisite taste without artifice. Schubert-playing this pure and unaffected comes only from the most evolved and selfless musicians.
The other third of this program also proved awesome. It offered Kern's practically insouciant traversal of Brahms' fearsome "Paganini" Variations, Books I and II, played with only a brief pause between them.
These were not only admirable for the untroubled sense the pianist made of them--their mechanical hurdles often mask their musical character--but for the lyrical beauties she found in them.
She reminded us that even at his thorniest, Brahms was first and always a composer of song.