Album Review: Olga Kern and Dalí Quartet

On the face of it, this Delos disc pairing the respective piano quintets by Johannes Brahms and Dmitri Shostakovich may not seem unusual, but it is quietly telling. Recent Western performances of the latter composer’s music tend to be unduly strident, polemical in intent; as if interpretive exaggerations—neither indicated nor intimated in the printed scores themselves—will somehow reveal a secret “Truth,” a dissident political statement hitherto unknown. The inference of this approach is fatal: music is a mere vessel for a cheap “message,” a grandiloquent op-ed for self-congratulatory snobs. Yet Shostakovich—who rebuked such utilitarian views of an art that was at least as blessed to him as it was to Schubert—understood the expressive potential of music, its capacity to reach beyond the realm of words, but he also knew that it had to be sublimated into cogent structures. Or as Brahms once put it to a friend, music should be beautiful, but “perfect it must be.” By placing Shostakovich next to Brahms, this Delos recording by pianist Olga Kern and the Dalí Quartet emphasize the former’s greatness as a musician rather than crypto-sloganeer, properly restoring him within the context of musical history as he understood it, as the latest in a tradition that extended back to Beethoven.

Their performance of Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet opens with a deliberately paced, but never heavy “Prelude,” whose breadth is sustained by Kern’s noble tone and bronzen voicing, as well as the Dalís’ discreet, but effective swooping. Together they reach the closing cadence, rendering it not with the pounding force typically heard, but almost caressingly. The Dalís’ tone is dewy and tender at the opening of the “Fugue”; evoking for a moment the sonority of the old Beethoven Quartet, Shostakovich’s favorite, whose wiry intensity, too, had a touch of sweetness (rarely emulated since). The movement builds to a grand climax, perorated by Kern’s piano, which rings forth grandly rather than stentoriously. This is followed by a delightful romp through the “Scherzo”; a touch faster than usually heard (although not approaching the breakneck speed that the composer himself sets forth in his commercial recording with the Beethovens), its play of vernal light brocaded by Kern’s sparkling fingerwork. A flowing and richly phrased “Intermezzo” leads into the “Finale,” which moves along jauntily to its ironic close.

While I would also not like to be without the exuberance of the Shostakovich’s own recording with the Beethovens or the vehemence of the classic Sviatoslav Richter/Borodin Quartet (the latter becoming a model for so many subsequent accounts), Kern and the Dalís’ willingness to balance this score’s expressive urgency with its ample natural charm is a welcome throwback to such Western pre-Shostakovich Wars recordings by Eunice Norton/Juilliard Quartet and Victor Aller/Hollywood Quartet, among others. I can think of no other recent performance of this magisterial score as genuinely enjoyable and sunny as this superb interpretation by Kern and the Dalís.

The discography of Brahms’s Piano Quintet is a little more crowded, but Kern and the Dalís manage to claim their own stake within it with distinction. Their recording has an unforced sweep in the first two movements, but surges powerfully in the final two, abetted by muscular phrasing and a taut collective sonority.

Delos’s sound is wide and a touch splashy in the mid-range and bass. Chaz Stuart’s liner notes are fine.

For listeners exhausted by the willfulness heard in modern performances of Shostakovich’s chamber music, this Delos disc is a refreshing alternative.


Néstor Castiglione, MusicWeb International
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