I have always respected the art of Kevin Kenner, the winner of the International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition of 1990: not impressive, but serious and showing a deep musical understanding. However, for a good few years, I have been intrigued by its constant development and growing maturity. The pianist, once just talented, today has possessed the wisdom available only to a handful of the ‘chosen’. It is not about the playing apparatus, which has always been impeccable, but about the conveyed message, the balance, the logic, and depth based on a thorough knowledge of the meaning of the musical score. Kenner is not looking for new effects; he just finds a natural, we would say: simple, though that term might be confusing, way through the meanders of music. Therefore, I was pleased to hear about his new album with the works of Ignacy Jan Paderewski (published by The Fryderyk Chopin Institute) and find out about his performance at Chopin and His Europe Festival (August 15).
The album features a set of miniatures, mostly the popular works of Paderewski, already well-known from numerous recordings, as well as one composition of greater format: Sonata in E flat minor, Op. 21. The music varies from graceful, melodic pieces to the late-Romantic, expanded form, dense in terms of its content and sound as the texture of the Sonata puts great demands on the performer, which, in turn, proves the outstanding skills of its legendary composer.
The album opens with a beautiful Sarabande. That slow, focused piece, one of the most directly appealing in Paderewski's oeuvre (that is how it is with sarabandes...), was given here one of its best, or even the best, form. That pseudo-Baroque pastiche is boldly performed by Kenner in a romantic way – not pretending to be the music in Bach style as understood today. In this way, it evokes a much more captivating mood than it was once attempted at, for example, by Tamara Granat (Dux album performed with Waldemar Malicki) who enriched the form with ‘Baroque’ elements; or, staying half way through, Ewa Kupiec (ed. Koch). Similarly, the deeper parts of Burlesque (where the music actually starts to be interesting), Intermezzo Polacco, and, especially, rarely performed Toccata ‘Dans le désert’ were wonderfully executed. The Toccata is, in fact, somewhat of a revelation as it is performed here not so much mechanistically but rather in an impressionist way, which is already suggested by the title (contrary to the features of the toccata genre).
I was slightly disappointed with the most glamorous and most famous works, especially Cracovienne Fantastique, but also, for example, Minuet in G major. It was not because they were performed incorrectly – just the opposite. Still, such music requires a large amount of bliss, external glow, bravery rather than maturity – as maturity, in those rather one-dimensional pieces, reveals their weaknesses, hiding the possible strengths. It cannot be concealed that although Paderewski might have modelled his Minuet on Mozart, there is a significant difference between imitating and truly capturing the form. Nevertheless, Kenner is capable of performing wonderfully the ‘real’ Mozart, at least his Violin Sonata in E minor, which I remember from his performance in Cracow.
When talking about problems, I need to mention one, which, possibly, was supposed to be an asset, but turned out to overshadow the entire recording. The music was performed on the piano originally owned by Paderewski, though I am convinced that the composer himself would not choose it today. Almost a century-old instrument is a valuable souvenir but long past its prime. Clearly, trying to rescue the hollow sound of the middle and simply non-sounding bass (the choking treble also leaves a lot to be desired), the pianist widely uses pedal (fortunately, not drowning the music!) and he is additionally ‘supported’ by the reverb resulting from the actual sound execution. As a consequence, it might sound satisfactorily on a boombox or computer, but, in normal circumstances, we cannot escape from evil.
Nevertheless, the album is definitely worth reaching for – at least because of a dramatic Sonata in E flat minor that still lies ahead waiting to be explored. It is too bad that we have to get to it through Minuet – although, on the other hand, it is comforting that the Minuet does not ‘jump out’ after amazingly eclectic finale of the Sonata (with its beginning resembling Chopin’s Scherzo in B minor, the fugue in the middle, and coda in Appassionata style... altogether, however, excellent, modernist, and – coherent!). Here, the ability to create the form and saturate it with life allows the American pianist to bring out the best in music – and, suddenly, we are confronted with an outstanding post-Liszt work – engrossed in its captivating dense, dark harmonies and highly dramatic, dynamic process; had it been a different piano – also in soundpainting of the middle Andante non troppo... The art from the turn of the century – a bold competitor for the ‘waffly’ Sonata in B flat minor by Rachmaninoff. Along with Variations and Fugue, Op. 23, another composition of Paderewski for pianists looking for the repertoire from the epoch dominated by orchestral music and opera.