33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Op.120
Partita in D, BWV828
Stephen Kovacevich (piano)
Recorded 30 June-3 July 2008 in Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, Wales
Reviewed by: Rob Pennock
Reviewed: January 2009
CD No: ONYX 4035
Duration: 78 minutes
In 1968 Philips issued a recording by the 27-year-old Stephen Bishop, which has held its place in the catalogue as best all-round recommendation for this, the greatest of all sets of variations. Some 40 years on, Bishop, now Kovacevich, has returned to this work, which as he acknowledges in the booklet note, was the piece that first made him love Beethoven, via Rudolf Serkin’s CBS recording.
Rather surprisingly he now takes two-and-half minutes less over the work and this new version cannot rival the earlier one’s command of power, wit and spirituality. The Theme itself is now too fast and the first Variation too loud and violent. In Variations 4 and 5 the piano sound is rather harsh and splashy; and in numbers 10, 16, 17 and 21 there is uneven fingering and a lack of true line and flow. There are examples where Vivace markings become Allegro molto or Presto and the overall effect is driven. Kovacevich mentions Beethoven’s humour, but there is little evidence of that, just nervous tension.
Back in 1968 Variations 30 to 32 brought a sense of profound spirituality and timelessness. They are still beautiful, but the deeper and sublime restatement of the Theme in the Largo no longer has a sense of progression and ever-greater rapt contemplation.
Of course Kovacevich is still a great pianist and there are some beautiful things here. Variations 2 and 3 are superbly and impressionistically voiced. Variation 20 is a disturbing essay in the use of spare textures.
But in the final analysis, this doesn’t have the effortless power and command of the earlier version and you do wonder about the faster and, often rushed, tempos. Is there is some attempt at spurious authenticity going on here?
The Bach is Kovacevich’s first foray into his music in the recording studio. Here the ‘Ouverture’ lacks focus and progression. Yet the ‘Allemande’ is marvellously voiced with plenty of rubato, ritardandos and pedal usage, and the ‘Courante’ and ‘Aria’ really dance. It would be difficult to play the ‘Sarabande’ better; there is a sense of immense sadness behind every note and Kovacevich presents it as a conversation, the right-hand’s music very romantic. The final two movements are alive and bouncy, although the final flourish is rather weak.
Sound-wise, everything is fine, if too forward and less ‘true’ than the reproduction afforded by the original Philips LP for Bishop’s 1968 account of the Beethoven, but certainly superior to the pretty ghastly sound that EMI served up for the pianist’s Beethoven sonata cycle.
So, a difficult release to evaluate, although Kovacevich fans will deem it an essential purchase.