Piano Sonata in C minor, Op.10/1
Piano Sonata in A flat, Op.110
Piano Sonata in B flat, D960
Stephen Kovacevich (piano)
Wigmore Hall, London
Monday, July 16, 2012
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Stephen Kovacevich is one of the world’s greatest pianists. His playing of Beethoven and Schubert is in the grand tradition. The first movement of Opus 10/1 was direct, with a slight relaxation of tempo for the second subject, but there was too much use of the sustaining pedal, which muddied the textures. Beethoven marked the second movement Adagio molto. Kovacevich’s underlying tempo was very slow, with old-school rubato, tempo variation, and he made the bass register sound positively Lisztian in the final seven bars. The finale was taken – as marked – Prestissimo and in the development he made the repeated groups of four quavers sound like a precursor of the opening motif of the Fifth Symphony.
Opus 110 is one of the greatest pieces of music and makes huge demands on the performer. In the past Kovacevich has been fully equal to its demands. Here he was not. The opening movement flowed too effortlessly by (previously Kovacevich has signposted the approach to the change of key at bar 69 with rubato and a slight slowing in the two preceding bars). Once again textures were too thick. Much the same could be said of the bass in the brief scherzo, and here the right-hand was very uneven and insecure. Anyone thinking that the sublime slow movement is marked Adagio ma non troppo would be wrong. The first three bars have that marking, then we have five different tempos in a section that has only two nominal bar-lines. Here Kovacevich was profoundly moving and time stood still. The transition to the Fugue was beautifully judged, the tempo restrained, but there was power in reserve. The return of the Adagio brought total calm and peace, before the thirteen chords that start in three and then move to six and finally eight parts that launch the Fugue. Kovacevich was almost brusque and decidedly underwhelming. Nor was there much cumulative power in the Fugue itself, and the parts lacked clarity.
Of the Schubert there is little to say, other than that its finest modern interpreter has lost the plot. There was no exposition repeat in the first movement, and the development was scrappy. The Andante sostenuto was too fast, and the wonderful transition to the second subject passed for nothing. After a powerful – but unfeeling – account of the middle section, the return of the first theme was mundane. Things improved slightly in the scherzo where there was power, but the trio was bland, as was the entire finale. Should this great pianist ever decide to retire, this performance will not be among many other happy memories of his playing.