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Olga Kern at 92Y

by Angela Sutton

Olga Kern 92Y

The spirit of Rachmaninoff hung over the auditorium at 92nd Street Y on Saturday night, and not simply becuase his works appeared on the program. Pianist Olga Kern—whose Russian roots include a family connection to the composer—is also a Rachmaninoff Competition winner, in the midst of several performance series featuring the composer's works for piano and orchestra. She is also clearly one of his latter-day disciples (more on that below).

From start to finish, Ms. Kern demonstrated tremendous resources of power and dexterity. The program—Schumann's Carnaval, an etude by Alkan, Chopin's Second Sonata, and (for the second half) a lengthy group of Preludes and Etudes Tableaux by the "six-and-a-half-foot scowl"—was extremely taxing, but Ms. Kern presented it all with barely a scratch, flooding the hall with ringing sound throughout.

But now, a quibble: Rachmaninoff famously recorded the programmed Schumann and Chopin works in the 1920s, and Ms. Kern clearly knows the recordings well—and ported over many of their details, good and bad. For example, in Carnaval, Ms. Kern, like Rachmaninoff before her, played the "Sphinxes" (a cryptic presentation of the basic note-sets of the work) as tremolos in the bass. Generally, this movement is left silent, hidden away in the pianist's conception of the rest of the work. Performed nakedly in this fashion, they make for a strange display. I suppose, however, that Super Bowl weekend would not be complete without a wardrobe malfunction somewhere.

Quirks aside, the first half held many striking moments: "Chopin" from Carnaval; the final two movements of the Chopin sonata; and with Rachmaninoff's works, Ms. Kern was particularly overwhelming. Standouts were her racing G-minor and titanic B-flat Prelude performances, which drew the audience firmly into her grasp. She returned for four encores (egads, yet more Rachmaninoff!), grinning and crooking her index finger each time to indicate "just one more," to wild applause.

It may be a while before she returns, but New York will clearly be eagerly awaiting more from Olga Kern.