Some think they need to suffer for their art. Olga Kern doesn’t seem to be one of them. For this forty-year-old Russian pianist, playing seems to come effortlessly. In 2001, she became the first woman in over thirty years to win the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and she has performed in front of former Presidents Mikhail Gorbachev and George W Bush and the former Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu. On none of those occasions did she feel nervous.
Next month, she will play with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, under Pinchas Zukerman, and she makes a point of emphasising just how excited she is. This kind of fearlessness has always served Kern well. Although both her parents were pianists, she was self-motivated from the start: ‘Nobody told me which instrument I needed to play and they were not pushing me at all.’ And performing similarly came naturally to her: ‘The first time I was on stage I was seven years old, playing Haydn with an orchestra. I didn’t want to leave, and I knew from that moment that this is what I want to do.’
Luckily her talent matched up to her ambition: ‘When I was learning Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto, which is one of the most difficult concertos for piano, I remember it was so easy for me. I learnt it in, like, two weeks and I was fourteen years old. I said to Mum, “How is it possible?” My Mum said, “When I was pregnant with you I was playing the piece, so maybe you heard it.”’
Kern also has family links to Rachmaninov, through her great-grandmother – a mezzo-soprano who was accompanied on the piano by the composer. ‘Some people describe Rachmaninov as a completely cold person, but I feel he was always very polite and funny with his friends,’ says Kern.
She similarly takes pride in the fact that her great-great-grandmother was a good friend of Tchaikovsky, and exchanged many letters with him. ‘I have read some of the letters and he always expressed himself in a very kind way to her,’ Kern reveals.
Olga Kern’s performance with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in March will feature Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1, a piece that certainly inspires the pianist: ‘There’s so much in it about nature. For example, the second movement is all about fields covered in snow.’ She continues, ‘then, in the middle section, you hear horses galloping through the beautiful field; it’s a really cold, beautiful sunny morning and the snow is shining. If you listen to Tchaikovsky’s ballets and his operas, too, there’s always something in them about nature.’
Does Kern’s personal link to the composer help when playing his music? ‘Yes,’ she says instantly. ‘I feel as though he is sitting behind my shoulder.’
Written by Hannah Nepil
Olga Kern performs Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Pinchas Zukerman on Tuesday 1 March 2016 at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall.