Russian pianist Olga Kern won the Van Cliburn competition playing Rachmaninoff's 3rd Piano Concerto, and we were lucky enough to hear her play it last night with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra to a sold-out house (a rarity in Denver). She will be doing a rare feat in Denver, playing all five of Rachmaninoff's works for piano and orchestra over a nine day period as part of a festival dedicated to the composer. Next weekend we will hear the 2nd Piano Concerto as well.
Her performance of the 3rd opened last night's program. Serge Rachmaninoff's pieces are notoriously difficult, not only because of the technical demands on the player, but because at six and a half feet tall, his hands were large enough to play full chords covering an octave and a half with each hand. Kern does not publicize her height, but she is very tall (almost comical standing next to the wonderful conductor Jeffrey Kahane) and clearly had no problem with the technical aspects of the piece. She was quite stunning on stage, wearing a dress that made her look like a mermaid. The audience adored her, and rightfully so, as she played both fluidly and beautifully.
The second half opened with a piece I had never heard, the Isle of the Dead. Kahane has a knack for discovering underplayed pieces. This was a really beautiful work based on a simple ostinato in 5/8 time, played with dark Bernard Herrmann-like orchestration, and building to a wonderful climax at the end. Like several of Rachmaninoffs works, it incorporates the Dies Irae many times, and to great effect.
The evening ended with one of Rachmaninoff's most popular works, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. She played it with both beauty and humor. It's always a great joy to see musicians enjoying themselves when they perform, and both she and conductor Kahane bring intense joy to their music.
I can hardly wait for next week!