Stephen Kovacevich Residency at Wigmore Hall (1)

Sonata for Solo Violin
5 Songs to texts by Endre Ady, Op.16
2 songs with viola, Op.91
Sonata in G for Violin and Piano, Op.78

Stephen Kovacevich (piano) with Monica Groop (mezzo-soprano), Viviane Hagner (violin) [Bartok], Alina Ibragimova (violin) & Atar Arad (viola)

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 16 October, 2008
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Stephen KovacevichThis was the first of two (originally three) Wigmore Hall recitals anchored by Stephen Kovacevich’s pianism. Bartók’s Sonata for Solo Violin is a late work. It is challenging – for composer, interpreter and listener alike – with a chaconne for opener and a fugue to follow. Bartók’s inspiration was Yehudi Menuhin playing Bach.

Viviane Hagner tackled the formidable difficulties with cool, efficient technique – presiding magisterially over fiendishly difficult double-stopping, awkward intervals, fugal counterpoint, abrasive rhythms and playing sul ponticello. Hagner concentrates with exceptional, glowering intensity – in respect for Bartók’s muse, and his style. Intense, too, is her passion – at burning, white heat. With formidable technique, she proved a redoubtable interpreter – displaying impassioned detachment in an extraordinary integration of razor-sharp head and vibrantly impersonal heart. The 1717 Stradivarius imbued her performance with rich, lustrous warmth.

Monica GroopMonica Groop is remarkable, too. Every note she sings is a keenly considered consequence of accomplished intelligence and self-control. Her performance is strikingly versatile – all conveyed in cool, silvery tones. Her voice is vibrant but not rich. The clarity of her higher notes is somewhat puritan, whilst her lower notes are more sensuous. She handled the awkward lyricism of Bartók’s settings of Ady’s lush, decadent melancholy with judicious reserve and a flowing but hands-off skill.

Her Brahms songs were melodious but uninvolved. I respect her technique and intelligence, but confess to finding her voice a strain to listen to. I found no charm. I was minded of Viktoria Mullova’s glacial relationship with the violin. Atar Arad seemed to be sight-reading the viola part.

Alina Ibragimova. Photograph: Sussie AhlburgAlina Ibragimova is a different matter. During the first few bars, I shuddered, thinking I was to hear a rather fey ‘little girlie’ performance from this 23-year-old, hesitant and breathless. I had to eat such thoughts! The violin tone from her 1738 Guarneri was certainly less robust and authoritative than that of Hagner on her Stradivarius, but her intentions were different, too. This is after all, one of Brahms’s sunniest and most eloquently lyrical works (replacing the advertised Opus 26 Piano Quartet) – unbuttoned.

Ibragimova’s initial hesitation turned out to be an opening move in a purposeful interpretation; we were well into Brahms’s Vivace ma non troppo before Ibragimova burst into full, vigorous, glorious flower. Her impassioned authority at this point was worth waiting for. The ensuing Adagio and Allegro molto moderato presented a surging, soft-grained Brahms – and a song-cycle for the violin. Yet its emotions had strength. The performance was honest and forthright, lyrical and beautiful – above all, resiliently musical.

Stephen Kovacevich accompanied both Groop and Ibragimova with gently authoritative artistry – with unassuming alertness to the style of his partner. I was never unable to hear Groop’s words (her articulation was exemplary), yet I continually sensed the robustness of the piano writing, too. Even more, Kovacevich showed lyrical and sympathetic understanding for Ibragimova, responding sensitively to the direction she took.

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