The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I – Prelude and Fugue in C sharp minor, BWV849
Piano Sonata No.5 in C minor, Op.10/1
Piano Sonata No.30 in E, Op.109
Impromptus, D899 – No.3 in G flat; 12 German Dances, D790 [selection]; Moment musicaux, D780 – No.6 in A flat
Rhapsody in E flat, Op.119/4; Intermezzo in A, Op.76/6; Intermezzo in A minor, Op.76/7; Capriccio in D minor, Op.116/7
Stephen Kovacevich (piano)
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 19 March, 2013
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall
Stephen Bishop, as he then was some forty years ago, seemed to burst on to the piano world fully formed. His Beethoven, in particular, came to sustain a fine balance between heart and head, and he belongs to that style of musician who recognises the difficulties to be overcome to achieve that longed-for Beethovenian transcendence. There is also a pragmatic humanity to his playing that understands the complexity and shadows in the music – his recordings of the piano sonatas always have some special insight to add. On the evidence of this recital, though, I’m sad to say that there were only glimpses of that magisterial, mercurial and gritty form, which, I feel, the 73-year-old pianist is unlikely to recapture.
The Bach had a lovely, veiled tone in the Prelude, with some exaggerated rubato that added to its eloquently distracted expressiveness. The knotty Fugue, however, sounded square and hectoring. Yet I imagine that the capacity audience – who, like me, hold Kovacevich in high regard – were there primarily for the Beethoven. Kovacevich assumed a terrifying speed for the first movement of the C minor Sonata, and the result was, frankly, splashy – you got the overall effect, but at the expense of expressive articulation. It’s the old problem of the brain taking for granted an easy, rapid response from technique. In the first movement of Opus 109, Kovacevich tended to rush the lilting opening music into the florid fantasy passages, and the music’s climactic moment couldn’t quite generate the delirium of release. He was at his best in the finale, setting a pace of gentle mobility for the Theme that gave the Variations a spacious sense of prescient inevitability, hovering convincingly on an impressively regulated trill into the visionary final bars.
The second half was devoted to shorter works. There was some rather generic pedalling in the mid-section of Schubert’s G flat Impromptu, although the serene opening sang out in all its familiar glory, and he played his selection of five German Dances with a touching naivety and directness. The overall impression of the first piece in the Brahms group, the E flat Rhapsody, was of doggedness, with grandeur of gesture but not of sound, but the pair of Intermezzos had the relaxed grace and elliptical fluency of Brahms at his most inimitable. Poignantly, the tension evaporated in his spellbinding encore, the ‘Allemande’ from J. S. Bach’s D major Partita (BWV828).