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Briefly Noted: Olga Kern and Dalí Quartet

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Brahms / Shostakovich, Piano Quintets, Olga Kern, Dalí Quartet

(released on March 1, 2022)
Delos DE3587 | 71'56"
It is good to see that Olga Kern is recording again. For her first disc since 2012, she has teamed up with the Dalí Quartet in two monuments of the piano quintet repertoire. The tracks were captured in 2019 in Norfolk, under the auspices of the Virginia Arts Festival, for whom Kern serves as director of chamber music. The Brahms selection, the Piano Quintet in F Minor, is a monument of the chamber music repertoire, but this rendition is too brash and forceful to hit the mark. Brahms was careful to note that three of the four movements are not to be taken too fast. Kern and the Dalí Quartet give the Scherzo a blistering air of excitement but rush through the other three movements and miss the wistful qualities of the music.

The other selection, Shostakovich's Piano Quintet in G Minor, makes for much better listening and mostly for the same reasons. The Lento first movement bristles with searing intensity, from both Kern and the quartet. The strings-only sections of the second movement are lush and contained, with Kern's rumbling octaves adding an air of distant menace. This quintet's Scherzo, a happy-go-lucky romp with plucky melodies that turn a little maniacal, could not be more different from the one composed by Brahms. Yearning string lines sing sweetly in the Intermezzo, accompanied by soft pizzicati or pulsed piano chords. Kern's bold touch at the keyboard propels the finale, which subsides to an understated finish.

Shostakovich composed the Piano Quintet just before Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1940. Born and trained in Russia, Kern broke a year-long Twitter silence earlier this month to demand an end to the brutal Russian war in Ukraine. As she explained in her message, her grandfather was from Ukraine, and her family had a connection with Kharkov, one of many cities recently bombed. She also toured with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine in 2019. Kern became an American citizen in 2016 and is now on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music. Her son, Vladislav Kern, is also a pianist who graduated from Juilliard's pre-college program in 2016. Mother and son have even performed together in recent years.

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