Stephen Kovacevich Residency at Wigmore Hall (2)

Sonata No.1 in F minor for Viola and Piano, Op.120/1
Sonata No.1 in E minor for Cello and Piano, Op.38
Piano Quartet in C minor, Op.60

Viviane Hagner (violin), Atar Arad (viola), Natalie Clein (cello) & Stephen Kovacevich (piano)

Reviewed by: Evan Dickerson

Reviewed: 18 October, 2008
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

En route to this concert, I reflected momentarily on the nature of Brahms’s music. Françoise Sagan’s novel “Aimez-vous Brahms?” famously has the cultured heroine reject the Romantic and safe world she sees the composer representing in favour of something more lively and inspiring. Then, on the other hand, remember that in his lifetime Brahms’s music was considered difficult, academic and even arid – anything but Romantic. Which point of view carries more credence? A Brahms concert might provide a reasonable conclusion to the question, and happily a capacity audience countered thoughts that people might be perturbed by a trio of works in a selection of minor keys.

Stephen KovacevichThe Viola Sonata, dating from 1894 when Brahms was in his mid-fifties, began life scored for clarinet and piano. However mindful of the commercial opportunities the music afforded, Brahms quickly prepared alternative versions, though the one for violin required more extensive reworking of the material.

The present version in particular allowed him to exploit opportunities for double stopping in the viola part. Plenty of appassionato feeling was brought to the opening Allegro, with Kovacevich showing his instinctual grasp of unforced Brahmsian sonority. A pity therefore that Atar Arad’s playing was marked by momentary over-emphasis of vibrato and wilful intonation at times. As the performance progressed it settled down somewhat, though the viola tone – always at its most secure in the mid-range – was not always fulsome over the rather sparse accompaniment of the second movement that maintains the dynamic flow of the music.

The Allegro grazioso had a rather chiaroscuro feel to it; sometimes brightly illuminated by the viola line, whilst at other times it sounded rather muddied in the textures of the piano part. Here more than elsewhere in the work Brahms the arch-Romantic establishes his presence. No sooner was this done though then it was cleanly brushed aside by the spirited playing of the Vivace finale. Here unity of purpose was finally convincingly achieved by the artists to conclude the final pages with much of the requisite brio the music demands.

Natalie CleinThe E minor Cello Sonata resolutely refuses to see Brahms tied into a stylistic straitjacket, with each of its three movements having its own individual character. The opening movement’s Romantically tempestuous vein of thought was emphasised in the grand gestures of Natalie Clein’s playing as well as her rich and imaginative interpretation given added conviction by never becoming over-insistent in relation to the piano. The second subject was notable for the simplicity of its delivery, though the ruminative aspect Kovacevich caught surpassed this.

In the second movement, the wit of Brahms’s instrumental lines was effortlessly brought out. From a rather wry opening, the delicacy of the effortlessly flowing trio section was emphasised by the clarity of the piano’s treble range. The closing Allegro is a fugal tour de force that both Clein and Kovacevich threw themselves into with abandon, clearly relishing its challenges and revelling in its grandeur while displaying their musicianship by not neglecting deft touches.

The C minor Piano Quartet is a work of some intensity, its opening movement gaining atmosphere aplenty in the well-matched tonal qualities of the string trio, given firmness by Clein’s cello and a the clean violin tone of Viviane Hagner. No one more than Kovacevich got stuck in to the meaty substance of the adventurous writing which sees the argument progress steadily away from the home key of C minor before assuming a final return. Much of the driving rhythmic force that concludes the first movement is to be found throughout the second, and here too the piano largely carries the music along to sustain its interest.

Brahms’s love of the cello is apparent in the Andante third movement, played with grace by Clein, to be neatly augmented by Hagner and Atar. Associations of the changing seasons – from late summer, to autumn then winter – were suggested in the gradually gloaming character of the music. Anxiousness, though, had the final say in the finale. Violin and piano set the tone with precision, which was heightened in expressive terms by their colleagues, reaching a point of summation at the recapitulation which emphatically declared Brahms to be very much his own man, neither Romantic nor in any measure an academician.

Given playing of this high order, it was little surprise that the performance received prolonged applause from the enthusiastic audience, many of whom, I suspect, would have taken great issue with Françoise Sagan’s heroine.

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