London Mozart Players Concert – 22nd January

Symphony No.25 in G minor, K183
Piano Concerto No.18 in B flat, K456
Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98

London Mozart Players conducted by Stephen Kovacevich (piano)

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 22 January, 2002
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

The surname is different now, but the Mozart playing remains as pellucid, sensitive and witty as ever, lyrical beyond criticism, yet intellectually powerful. As Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich, his most famous Mozart concerto recording is exactly thirty years old, but on this evidence, he has lost none of his freshness or appetite.

I found the symphony opening the concert a disappointment. Pianists can control every nuance of pace and tone under their fingers; conducting is, by definition, an intangible metaphor, inspiration made concrete in sound. Pianist-conductors, it seems, often fail to make that last leap of communicating their imagination to other performers – they cannot, as they do when directing a concerto from the keyboard, do it by example. This makes for literal performances, as with Mozart 25. The slow movement seemed careful rather than deeply felt, the scherzo strangely muted, with the serenade-like trio perhaps the most successful. Even the finale never quite caught fire. I missed the spring and delicacy that Sir Colin Davis, for example, even with bigger band, the LSO, achieves.

The opening of the concerto brought an instant expectation and electricity about the orchestral playing. The difference was startling.As soloist, Kovacevich displayed the virtues which have become his trademark – fine intellectual organisation and structure – that was never boring, and exact, light-fingered passagework. It was a performance rhapsodic, yet masculine, the first movement full of a still- youthful vivacity. There were particularly striking moments – the transfixing simplicity of the last solo before the end of the exposition and the subsequent climax; the cadenza was brusque yet light. Kovacevich reminded that, though he is currently prominent for his invariably fine Beethoven and Brahms, he has always been a master of Mozart.

The slow movement opens like a cavatina. Kovacevich made the most of this operatic leaning, playing throughout with light and shade, contrasting meditation and impassioned statement and closed with a marvellously exuberant and witty finale, ever more precipitate, yet never out of control. From its sunny, brisk beginning, Kovacevich maintained a mood somewhere between dance and gallop with a sense of humour reminiscent of Haydn and excellent pick-up in the energetic wind passages.

Although the LMP play on modern instruments, its Brahms with reduced forces represents a modern fashion. This brings transparency of melodic line and openness of texture that brought out Brahms’s skilful part-writing and cross-rhythms. However, Brahms is so consciously intellectual that his orchestral music can benefit from a degree of illusion, some lushness and colour to sweeten the relentlessly developed structures. Kovacevich teased out every separate line; I was reminded of his immaculately conceived recordings of Brahms’s late piano works, the same profound straightforwardness. The first movement was certainly beautifully shaped and sympathetically played, but almost with an excess of clarity – at times, one wished to be beguiled, not lectured.

On the whole, the inner movements worked best. At the climax of the slow movement the unbroken stream of melody built with ever-growing intensity; in the scherzo, the extensive use of triangle, more prominent with smaller forces, was counterpoised by growling bassoon passages that gave the movement a charming burlesque, folk music flavour with syncopation gratifyingly prominent.

As for the monumental concluding passacaglia, the simplicity of its beginning augured well. The detached chords of the first variation were expertly controlled and reminded of Kovacevich’s impeccable playing of the repeated chords in Beethoven’s Op.110 sonata come the return of the fugue. From halfway through however, and not helped by occasional uncertainty in the brass, the palette of a bigger orchestra was missed.

This concert was good value for the concerto alone and it is fervently hoped that Kovacevich never abandons his career as a soloist.

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