Sonata in D minor, Op 31/2 (Tempest)
Sonata in E, Op 109
Sonata in B flat, D960
Stephen Kovacevich (piano)
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 20 October, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
The second of the South Bank Centre’s International Piano series was a thoroughly distinguished affair, Stephen Kovacevich tackling two Himalayan peaks of the piano repertoire and emerging victorious. This was a recital which grew progressively more impressive, culminating in the A flat Moment Musical of Schubert as an encore that was memorable for its total simplicity, chords perfectly weighted, the line held in miraculous equilibrium.
To begin, there was a fine if less than totally satisfactory performance of the Tempest Sonata, one with more than its fair share of slips. Still, it was clever planning to have included this, perhaps the most Schubertian of Beethoven sonatas, as a curtain-raiser to a programme that would conclude with Schubert’s final and most elusive piano work. Far more satisfactory was Opus 109 (although the season-long programme and its notes anticipated and discussed the A major sonata, Opus 101!); here, in Opus 109, Kovacevich’s playing penetrated to the music’s heart, effectively underlining the emotional distance that separates the world of the Opus 31 sonatas from the late works. Especially memorable were the pugnacious but never hectoring scherzo and the gradual flowering of the final variations as they unfurled like some giant oriental water lily gradually extending itself in the morning sun before folding back into the deeply contemplative opening. This was Beethoven playing on the very highest level – unforced, trenchant and characterful.
Similarly memorable was Schubert’s B flat Sonata which received a performance of the utmost distinction. This is hallowed ground trod by the greatest pianists – one recalls a particularly memorable Curzon performance in this hall – and the greatest compliment one can pay Kovacevich is to say that he measured up to the comparison. No first movement repeat but the performance breathed effortlessly into life and sang through the silences. Completely understated, it achieved its effects with the minimum of fuss, by line and concentration alone, power held in reserve. The slow movement’s leaping octave motif mimicked the octave drumbeat figure of the Tempest’s slow movement, the trio’s off-beats were all the more telling for their precisely gauged understatement and only in the finale’s two fortissimo outbursts did Kovacevich unleash the piano’s full weight of tone. Just before the frenetic coda Schubert miraculously suspends time, pausing for the briefest of moments, and dropping a tone before the final sprint for the finishing post; from Kovacevich this magical moment was especially potent. Indeed, if it is not a contradiction in terms, one could say that this recital was touched by a potent understatement.