Stephen Kovacevich Recital

Bagatelles, Op.126 (selection)
Sonata in B flat, Op.106 (Hammerklavier)
Ländler, D790 (selection)
Partita in D, BWV828

Stephen Kovacevich (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 18 May, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

An announcement was made just prior to the recital that Stephen Kovacevich was not especially well but didn’t want to cancel. Should we have been told? Of course, much sympathy to an ailing human being – but such knowledge can alter opinions. Maybe this is exclusively a reviewer’s dilemma: if the artist has an off day then one reports he did well under the circumstances; if it goes spectacularly well, then one can run the headline, “Triumph in Adversity”.

I wonder what I’d be writing if Kovacevich’s state of health had not been made public. Well I’d have started by bemoaning that Berg’s Op.1 sonata had been dropped and, with it, a fascinating opportunity to juxtapose this and the Hammerklavier – the ’little and large’ of sonatas, if you will, both with far-reaching influence. What wasn’t made clear is whether Kovacevich’s circumstances and the ’missing’ Berg were related.

The four of the six Op.126 bagatelles played were somewhat lumpy in delivery, a little cautious, a tad inexact – Kovacevich’s certainty of interpretation lay behind his execution. He was troubled by considerable perspiration, and dealt with the mopping-up operation admirably.

Straight into the Hammerklavier – just the challenge you need when poorly! As a conception, Kovacevich was not-surprisingly true to his view of it (as wonderfully documented on his new recording) which meant a sword-drawn approach to the first movement – which might have threatened to come of the rails at a couple of points, but Kovacevich was uncompromising in his velocity. Maybe there was the sense that he just wanted to get through it (a non-repeated exposition helped) but one was absorbed in the musicianship and endeavour – so too in the Finale’s manic fugue; Kovacevich won through, so did Beethoven. The slow movement, as on the record, seems to me an exceptionally poetic and direct realisation of this enigmatic statement (wonderfully sustained and sweat-stained!).

Maybe the exigencies of the Hammerklavier purged Kovacevich, for he returned looking brighter and the second half proved exceptional. I think he played eight of the twelve German Dances – I lost count due to being bewitched by Kovacevich’s limpid and easeful approach, one that kept Schubert’s soul in view. The Bach was special – ideal to my mind in being structured, free and characterful. The ’Allemande’ flowed yet touched the heart and the quicker dances were delightfully perky. (At one stage, I believe EMI intended to record Kovacevich in all Bach’s partitas – it should!) The whole uplifting experience suggested that music is the best medicine. Some nocturnal Chopin was the perfect encore.

Triumph in adversity, then.

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