Album Review: Olga Kern and Dalí Quartet

What a wonderful coupling here from the massively talented pianist Olga Kern and the Dalí Quartet. Both of these piano quintets have their adherents, but to have them juxtaposed like this is infinitely refreshing.

Russian-American pianist Olga Kern has released a string of significant albums. Back in 2004 (and, for me therefore, before my Fanfare days), I was very taken with her disc of Rachmaninoff transcriptions and a fine version of his Corelli Variations on Harmonia Mundi, although I see her playing has split many of my colleagues here. Kern won the Gold Medal at the 2001 Van Cliburn Competition. She was trained at the Moscow Conservatoire. Her Brahms is fiery and racy in the first movement, and yet that depth of sound so necessary to a Brahmsian sound world is there from both pianist and string players. The intensity of the final measures of the first movement in this performance is breathtaking; the gently swaying Andante, un poco adagio offers some respite, but not as much as one might have thought. Kern and the Dalí Quartet allow the music to spiral down into a place of respite, as if affected by the taut emotions of the first movement. One can really hear the beauty of tone Kern derives from her instrument here, and the sense of dialogue in chamber music with her string colleagues is clear and a source of constant delight. The energy of the Scherzo seems perfectly captured at the quiet opening, all coiled spring; when the music opens outwards into an explosion of energy, though, there is a slight sag. The recording does capture every nuance of this journey, however, and there is no doubting the youthful enthusiasm of all concerned. I particularly enjoy the equivalence of first and second violins, Domenic Salerni and Carlos Rubio, and the way the movement ends with a fireball of sound, to be answered by the threadbare questionings that open the finale in its Poco sostenuto section. I would not quite go so far as annotator Chaz Stuart does in calling this “Expressionist,” but I get the point about the advanced harmonies to convey a certain level of Angst. There is certainly a sense of abandonment to the finale, despite its studio conditions, coupled with a real sense, in places, of danger. Chordal exchanges between piano and quartet are beautifully managed, too: students of chamber music could learn much from this performance. There is no instrumentarium, but Kern is a Steinway artist so one assumes this to be the instrument du jour, and certainly there is a cleanliness to the sound that supports this, a cleanliness that, coupled with Kern’s immaculate playing, allows for Brahms’s counterpoint to really count. This is a fabulous performance.

There is much competition here, from Sviatoslav Richter to Leon Fleisher to Peter Frankl to Pollini’s classic DG account (this last, for me, the finest of them all). Purely taking the Brahms on its own into consideration, Kern comes in as a fine alternative rather than a new first choice.

Over to Shostakovich, then, and once more the shadows of Richter (with the legendary Borodin Quartet) and, indeed Shostakovich himself (with the equally legendary Beethoven Quartet) are felt. Hearing Kern in the extended, granitic piano solo that opens the first movement, one is struck by the change of atmosphere. Where Brahms offered, at most, Angst, Shostakovich brings vivid torment. This is heard full force here, the fine recording supporting the deliberately raw sounds. As always with Shostakovich, there are massive contrasts, and here one delights particularly in Kern’s lightness of touch, and in the sweetness of Salerni’s upper register. The Dalí Quartet’s finest moment of the disc comes in their blanched, restrained performance of the Fugue, resulting in the most delicate of slowly moving mobiles. It is truly gripping, and when Kern enters, quietly, in the piano’s lowest register, it is like the earth itself starts to slowly move. This movement is the clear highlight of the disc, a miracle of concentration and textural integrity that allows for maximal expression because of, rather than despite, those facets. Kern and the Dalí cannot match Richter and the Borodin Quartet’s verve here, nor their sense of place (in other words, it sounds less Russian in Kern/Dalí’s hands); similarly the sense of earthy rhythm in the finale is more entrenched in that Richter performance. But I do like the way Kern and the Dalí Quartet take crescendos to extremes to raise the intensity, just as they can darken textures beautifully and soulfully. The Domenic piece ends with a delicious tapestry of lines that dissolve in a final gesture.

There is much to enjoy in this release, particularly the thoughtful coupling and the more reflective moments. 


Colin Clarke, Fanfare Magazine
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