Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1; Fantaisie in F minor, Op. 49; Bolero, Op. 19; Fantaisie-Impromptu, Op. 66; Polonaise in A flat, Op. 53

COMPOSERS: Chopin
LABELS: Harmonica Mundi
ALBUM TITLE: Chopin
WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 1; Fantaisie in F minor, Op. 49; Bolero, Op. 19; Fantaisie-Impromptu, Op. 66; Polonaise in A flat, Op. 53
PERFORMER: Olga Kern (piano); Warsaw PO/ Antoni Wit
CATALOGUE NO: HMU 907402
The Russian-born pianist Olga Kern won the 2001 Van Cliburn competition. She has a formidable technique – she has been quoted as saying ‘I play strong like a man but feel like a woman’ – and while her Chopin certainly has a steely muscularity, I find her playing undeniably accomplished yet disappointingly uninvolving.

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In the E minor Concerto, recorded ‘live’ over two concerts, there is a curious lack of drive, energy and brilliance to Kern’s passagework in the outer movements that outweighs some finely turned phrasing. The slow movement, too, while seeking inward reverie, comes across as unimaginative and plain-speaking, and the support of Antoni Wit’s Warsaw band needs a stronger dynamic bite. Listen to Martha Argerich (a pianist who really does ‘play strong like a man but feel like a woman’) and you experience a charisma, temperament and exploratory spontaneity – reinforced by a greater range of dynamics, inflection and instrumental colour – that eludes Kern.

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In the studio-made solo fillers Kern embraces a richer expressive diversity, but these performances still blow hot and cold. The F minor Fantasie is taken very slowly, but Kern can’t sustain the brooding intensity of the opening and her reading ultimately loses structural coherence, almost grinding to a halt at the Lento sostenuto (from 7:49). Kern’s ultra-secure left-hand octaves in the A flat Polonaise are stunning, but elsewhere her rubato seems forced and arbitrary. The Fantasie-Impromptu displays greater flair and authority, but overall Kern’s Chopin rarely rises above the commonplace. Good sound, especially in the solo items. Tim Parry