Although you wouldn't know it from musical programming around here, 2010 marks the bicentenary of both Frédéric Chopin and Robert Schumann. Even the record industry hasn't paid much attention to Schumann this time, but there's been a miniflurry of new Chopin CDs, including two from gold medalists of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
Nobuyuki Tsujii (2009) and Olga Kern (2001) won the top prize in the only two years the Cliburn awarded two gold medals. That suggests that the judges weren't entirely of one mind, and I certainly had mixed feelings about both pianists.
Tsujii, blind from birth and only 20 when he won last year, here sounds like a musician of real depth. (These are live recordings from the 2009 competition.) Kern, in a studio recording, plays the piano very well but sets no personal imprint on the music.
Don't be put off by the awful sound of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra at the start of the Tsujii CD. The orchestra plays quite capably, and conductor James Conlon shapes the music sensitively. He even coordinates securely with Tsujii, no small challenge with a sightless soloist. But, although the piano sound is clear and warm, the recording engineer seems to have stuck the orchestra at the bottom of a boomy cistern.
The sound seems to improve as the concerto proceeds, or else one's ears get used to it. Soon one is drawn into the unassuming magic of Tsujii's playing.
There's no grandstanding, no point-making, just a luminous tone and an utterly natural feeling for the shape and direction of phrases. Those are assets far rarer in the concert hall than you might imagine.
Tsujii's performances of the Berceuse and Études are skilled and sensitive, too. Even quite a brisk pace in the G-flat major Étude doesn't prevent graceful shaping.
Kern's CD just doesn't grab me.
Hers is well-bred pianism, making all the obvious expressive gestures, and the recorded sound is beautifully lifelike. But in music that so often presents a phrase, then immediately repeats it, she almost never varies the repetitions.
Surely those repetitions are there precisely to force the player to do something different, but no. (Admittedly, few modern interpreters observe Alfred Cortot's warning: Never do the same thing twice.)
Even if one plays the B-flat minor Sonata's famous Funeral March very slowly, as Kern does, it needs a certain urgency missing here. The following Presto is just a lot of pointless whizzing.
The Harmonia Mundi label has been good to Kern, and she has some very good recorded performances to show for the relationship. These strike me as also-rans.