London Mozart Players/Kovacevich – Beethoven (6)

Egmont, Op.84 – Overture
Symphony No.8 in F, Op.93
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)

London Mozart Players
Stephen Kovacevich

Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker

Reviewed: 10 April, 2008
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Stephen Kovacevich (formerly Stephen Bishop). Photograph: David Thompson - EMI ClassicsFour over four decades, Stephen Kovacevich has been one of the finest Beethoven pianists before the public, and more recently has turned his attention towards conducting, to the extent that he is currently undertaking a complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies with the London Mozart Players. With this programme, the Eighth and ‘Eroica’ symphonies were preceded by the Overture to “Egmont” (part of the composer’s incidental music), although the programme book had the works in the first half printed in reverse order.

After a correcting statement by Kovacevich, the programme properly began with the overture, but it was not long into the work that the shortcomings in Kovacevich’s conducting became apparent. For such a noted Beethovenian as he, it was frankly astonishing to see him using a score – which he continued to do throughout the programme – surely, one felt, he would know these works intimately. It would have been better had he relied upon his memory, for the slow introduction of “Egmont” actually got slower, ensemble was by no means immaculate, and internal balance was poor, with the timpani at times absurdly loud – and this with a string strength of 8 / 7 / 4 / 4 / 2 players! In this acoustic, one began to cringe when the next entry of the timpani approached.

Much the same could be said of the Eighth Symphony, with the added distraction of too fast a tempo for the echt-Viennese character of the second movement – a characteristic that was to surface 90 years later at the start of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. There was poor intonation at the close of the Trio.

Kovacevich’s tempo for the first movement of the ‘Eroica’ was very swift, but his insistence on beating three in a bar (without baton) at this speed did not help the orchestra, although one commended his observance of the first movement repeat. But with such a relatively small string section, to have four horns in the louder passages of the ‘Funeral March’ and in the finale, when Beethoven only asks for two or (in the trio) three, was ridiculous. It must be admitted, however, that the performance improved as it went on, but one would never have thought that the conductor was a distinguished Beethoven interpreter in another branch of the art.

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