London Mozart Players/Kovacevich – Beethoven (1)

Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.19
Symphony No.1 in C, Op.21
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.36

London Mozart Players
Stephen Kovacevich (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 15 March, 2007
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

The London Mozart Players is making a year-long traversal (finishing in May 2008) of Beethoven’s symphonies and piano concertos with Stephen Kovacevich, who will play and direct the latter works. The complete cycle features at Cadogan Hall; other venues take some concerts.

We should have begun this first instalment with the C major Symphony. Instead, and this might have been a last-minute decision given the piano was wheeled into view very shortly before the concert’s start, the concerto (composed before that published as No.1) was first off and immediately introduced the incisive and graceful execution of the London Mozart Players, horns and oboes to the fore, dynamics beguilingly contrasted and with biting accents. The piano was positioned on the diagonal with Kovacevich sitting with his back to the non-antiphonal second violins. His beautifully modulated and scintillating assumption of the solo part was a pleasure in itself; balance was excellent although, as throughout the evening, a third double bass would have been desirable. Although the LMP is a chamber orchestra, Kovacevich is only going ‘so far’ when it comes to matters of being ‘historically informed’; the slow movement was orchestrally full-toned although the closing bars memorably shaded to fragility, and the finale was lively, chiselled and enjoyed dry wit. It may have been that Kovacevich was ‘under the weather’: during to the first movement cadenza he succumbed to several coughs but without putting a finger out of place.

The first two symphonies, which somehow one never tires of hearing, were as fresh-faced as the concerto had been, notable for clarity of detail and equality between winds, brass and strings with crisp-sounding and vivid timpani. Kovacevich kept things on the move, not afraid to unleash punchy accents or shape lyrical music with ‘human’ feeling.

His conducting of the first movement of Symphony No.1 was exemplary for not being pulled around (quite a few conductors tweak the phrasing, but Kovacevich was as true as an arrow, to advantage) and both the slow introduction and the Larghetto of Symphony No.2 were given with welcome spaciousness (Kovacevich doesn’t seem to have had a metronome by his side when studying the scores!) if not necessarily with quite the gravitas that goes with such ‘searching’ tempos. No mention was made of the edition being used: given Kovacevich was happy to repeat the scherzo’s first section in the da capo (‘wrong’ in term of structural logic) then he may be using older printings of this music. No bad thing!

It could be argued that both symphonies’ finales were too fast, but the unanimity and poise of the playing was testimony to the LMP’s all-round excellence. All in all, this whetted the appetite for future concerts. This first ‘leg’ is played at Fairfield Halls, Croydon, on 17 March and at Cheltenham Town Hall on the 23rd. The second volume, including Piano Concerto No.4 and Symphony No.5, is heard at The Anvil, Basingstoke on 25 April and at Cadogan Hall the following evening.

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