Stephen Kovacevich at Wigmore Hall – Bach and Schubert

Partita in D, BWV828
Piano Sonata in B-flat, D960

Stephen Kovacevich (piano)

Reviewed by: Alexander Hall

Reviewed: 17 October, 2020
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Few artists have had such a long association with Wigmore Hall as Stephen Kovacevich. He made his European debut there almost six decades ago, a couple of years into his studies with Dame Myra Hess. Now exactly eighty years after his birth he was back again, playing the same work that he chose for his 75th-birthday recital, Schubert’s final Piano Sonata.

Baroque music is more inextricably linked to its architecture than perhaps any other style of music. It announces its grandeur and vitality in countless ways: the set of six Partitas that Bach composed for the keyboard between 1726 and 1731, ostensibly as practice pieces, conjure up the formality but also the playfulness of many of the dances popular at the time. I have a soft spot for the Sarabande, the fifth of the seven movements in D-major Partita. Like the tango in the early 20th-century, this dance was put into the naughty corner and banned in some countries for its alleged obscenity. Despite Handel’s popularising influence, it then languished on the sidelines until revived much later by Busoni. Kovacevich stressed its inward qualities, the slight agogic hesitations giving the music an added depth, the colouring etched in lightly, stately and serene in its overall effect. The Allemande with its long singing phrases developed an almost dream-like quality, the melodic line in the left-hand floating ever upwards with the right-hand following in perfect accord, the composer tellingly freed from the jibe that he only wrote sewing-machine music. Elsewhere I found Kovacevich’s tempos on the brisk side. A slight unsteadiness crept into his playing of the Courante, as was also the case in the concluding Gigue which nonetheless crackled along with spirited energy.

If the opening flourishes and fugal elements of the Ouverture signalled to the listener that ceremony and order underpinned the certainties of the Baroque sound-world, a century-later things looked very different. Kovacevich is on-record as saying that Schubert’s music scares him more than any other composer because of its irresolution. This pianist’s way with D960 can certainly scare the listener too: this was the stuff of nightmares.

One advantage that Kovacevich has over much younger interpreters is that he has been playing this Sonata and exploring its mine-shafts with their inky seams for most of his life. What he brought to the surface was one of the bleakest and most desolate performances I have ever heard, utterly uncompromising but also utterly compelling. When he started there was a world-weary feel to the melody, the bass trills that are so often made to feel like the rumble of approaching thunder kept firmly in check. But then the weight of the interpretation began to take hold, the left-hand becoming quite insistent, the pulse deliberately unsteady, the anguish coming now from the melodic line, emotions both uncontained and uncontainable. Even without the exposition repeat (and the nine-bar lead-in) this was a powerful first movement. There was no lingering, no attempt at consolation even as the music moved into brighter key modulations. Cantabile tone was often sacrificed for an honest and brutal representation of the notes, stark and shocking in their straightforwardness, Schubert as a trailblazer for nihilism.

How could the marking sostenuto in the second movement carry so much sadness, I found myself thinking. It could and it did in Kovacevich’s hands. Here were occluded skies with no shafts of sunlight to lift the spirits, the melancholy underlined by the insistent tread in the bass, gorgon-like in its mien, the sudden pauses in the flow alerting the listener to the darkest and deepest abyss below. How wonderfully too Kovacevich pared down the dynamics in the closing bars, making the heartache seem even more intense.

Nor was there the slightest indication of a joke that the term Scherzo implies in the third movement. As with Shakespeare, the comic aspects are there to bring relief and restoration after the earlier moments of high drama. This, however, was the delivery boy on a stormy day, anxious to complete his rounds, the wind whipping through the folds of his inadequate clothing and bringing a further chill to the music.

Schubert marks the Finale ma non troppo; Kovacevich pressed on regardless. All the Schubertian charm and Viennese Gemütlichkeit had been blown away in the raging winds; both hands were now articulating the melodic and harmonic lines with steel-edged wrath. As an interpretative statement Kovacevich’s D960 is one of the bleakest and most unsettling ways to view this piece: Schubert as an angry young man in the throes of a terminal illness and just weeks away from his final breath. And who is to say what demons must have been locked into his innermost soul?

How splendid it was therefore that this fine octogenarian sent his audience home with the consoling warmth and elegance of phrasing in the second of Schumann’s Opus 28 Romanzen.

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