Yes, Olga Kern does appear in her photographs to be quite beautiful, glamorously, gorgeously, gloriously beautiful. Try not to hold that against her because, under all her appearance of beauty, Kern is actually a great musician and the proof is in her disc of transcriptions and variations by Rachmaninov. Kern's physical beauty is matched and surpassed by her tone, her technique, and, best of all, her interpretations. Her tone is clear, deep, rich, strong, and warm. Her technique is effortless, flawless, and just about beyond belief. And her interpretations are even better.
Garrick Ohlsson is much better known for his elegant recordings of the piano music of Frédéric Chopin than he is for his forays into Russian music, but this 2011 release of Sergey Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor shows that he brings the same kind of polish and depth of expression to this monumental post-Romantic showpiece. From the opening octaves of his entrance, Ohlsson plays with smooth, melodic connectedness, and his singing tone carries the work's long lines effectively, if somewhat introspectively.
Deep in the heart of the Cold War, there was once a miracle in Moscow – Texas-based classical pianist Van Cliburn, of whom no one had heard, conquered at the First Tchaikovsky Competition, an event set aside to showcase Soviet talent. Cliburn was warned by his own government not to go, given the tense political relationship between the United States and Soviet Union at the time, and once he arrived he was greeted as a party crasher, subject to hostile stares and animosity of the kind he had never dreamed of back in Texas. And it was Cliburn, at the end, which brought down the house, and held the award. Back in America, he was greeted with a ticker tape parade and was the subject of a best-selling biography by Abram Chasins, The Van Cliburn Story, copies of which continue to clog the shelves of American thrift stores five decades hence. Ultimately, though, Cliburn's celebrity lost its luster. Nerves, ultra-picky perfectionism, and mishandling by management led to his early retirement from the concert scene; his greatest latter-day achievement being the force behind the Van Cliburn Piano Competition, America's most prestigious such event.
The prize here is the Rachmaninoff cello sonata, a warm, hyper-Romantic musical tapestry that gives both the pianist and cellist a major workout. Ma is a superb chamber-music player, as is Ax. Both offer the kind of artistic give-and-take that a great performance of this music requires, while neither weighs the music down with excessive indulgence. The Prokofiev, a very different sort of musical beast, is a much lighter work, but it's done no less well. This is one of Ma's best chamber-music discs.
The nearly uninterrupted string of strong, successful albums produced by cellist Gautier Capuçon (and indeed his violinist brother, Renaud) demonstrates that the CD debut Face à Face was not just a fluke produced by child prodigies. Rather, Face à Face was a springboard for what has proven to be an enduring career and ever-improving musicianship. On this latest album without his brother, Gautier collaborates with pianist Gabriela Montero on the cello sonatas of Rachmaninov and Prokofiev. Fans of Capuçon's playing will recall that he had previously released a recording of the Rachmaninov sonata with pianist Lilya Zilberstein on the EMI label in 2003. While it may seem questionable to make duplicate recordings when he has recorded so little of the cello repertoire, it offers listeners an opportunity to see how his playing continues to mature even over a short span of five years. While some of the tempos are a little different than the 2003 recording, the most notable difference is that of sound, which has developed impressively with the help of his magnificent 1701 Gofriller cello. His command of sound is most obvious in the solo opening of the Prokofiev sonata.