Stephen Kovacevich at Queen Elizabeth Hall – Diabelli Variations

Partita in D, BWV828
Kinderszenen, Op.15
33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Op.120

Stephen Kovacevich (piano)

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 26 January, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Stephen KovacevichStephen Kovacevich is a pianist of considerable integrity. He is a master of his craft – approaching his work with the care and attention of a craftsman. He is also a gentleman, giving fastidious, sensitive consideration to the music. His type is rare.

In the Beethoven, Kovacevich takes this sprightly, idiotic waltz-tune and, through a judiciously weighted left-hand, shows Beethoven treating Diabelli’s basic beat and accompaniment with a loud, magisterial jocularity. To hear Beethoven’s humour thus acknowledged is a rare delight. The performance – robustly – brought out Beethoven’s mood of joyous, brazen superficiality. There was bravura, too, in the flashily difficult Variations. These were thrilling.

Less satisfying, unfortunately, were the slower Variations. They require a serene melancholy whose inner repose is hard-won. This Kovacevich could not give us. His sensitive gravity gave a considered straightforward account of the writing. As a result, the performance fell short of greatness.

Kovacevich’s Bach was knotty, played in short, clipped phrases with forcefully-articulated ornamentation. He treated the modern Steinway somewhat percussively, presumably in order to deny himself the extravagant luxury of the sustaining pedal. The outcome was abrupt phrasing, tough but made to sound remote.

Kinderszenen was dreamlike – sensitively rendered in a rather undifferentiated flow. Schumann’s romantic intensity was not present. It needs to be there for these deliciously plaintive pieces to make their mark.

Nevertheless Kovacevich remains impressive and distinctive.

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