Piano Sonata, Op.1
Piano Sonata in A, D959
Stephen Kovacevich (piano)
Reviewed by: Rob Pennock
Reviewed: 4 September, 2006
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London
Stephen Kovacevich’s EMI recording of Schubert’s A major sonata is for me the greatest ever committed to disc, so to hear him play it live with the single-movement Berg was an enticing prospect. But, I really have to take exception to two aspects of the BBC Proms presentation. First, while I could cope with Stephanie Hughes introducing each work from the stage, it was very distracting for her to remain seated there throughout the performance and, second, why on earth she had to encourage applause, when Kovacevich first appeared, by clapping with her hands in the air and nodding to the audience. And it was disappointing to see that Cadogan Hall was less than half-full for one of the world’s great pianists.
When attending a Kovacevich concert, there is an element of risk, in that his technique is not as secure as it was; but on this occasion there were very few fluffs and none that were distracting. The Berg was played for what it is, a young guy’s piece of late-romanticism, with chromatic and cyclic pointers towards his atonal and twelve-note periods. Its three themes are all derived from the first subject and the score does mark them with different tempos. Kovacevich didn’t drastically alter the speeds, but rather chose to seamlessly integrate them, thus emphasising the romantic elements. His use of the sustaining pedal and singing tone also ensured that the work remained rooted in the 19th-century and yet, paradoxically, time and again I was reminded of Scriabin and, just occasionally, Rachmaninov.
Berg belonged to the Second Viennese School, but Schubert was the greatest of all Austrian composers and the A major Sonata is one of the supreme challenges for a pianist. Here the first subject was forceful with slight pauses in the second half of the theme, and throughout the movement there was superb dynamic and rhythmic shading. The second subject brought marginal slowing with an open sound that completely eschewed sentimentality and the delicate decorative scales were almost Mozartean – but a sense of drama and latent power were always present. In the development every line was clearly delineated, rhythms and inner parts were highlighted and at the climax there was a sense of fury, as Kovacevich pounded the rhythm out; the coda brought some miraculous shading combined with a sense of rhythmic and dynamic fragmentation.
As in all of Schubert’s late works the shadow of death hangs in the air and nowhere is this more pronounced than in the spectral Gondoliers song that is the slow movement of this work. Here Kovacevich adopted a genuine ‘andantino’ tempo and again the tonal and rhythmic shading were exceptional. In the central section’s assault on tonality there was no change in tempo and the rhythm was strictly maintained, thus making it even more frighteningly immediate. When the first subject returned the sense of threatening implacable rocking was truly disturbing and the second subject brought no relief.
The scherzo brought no lightening of the mood; rarely can it have sounded so ominously otherworldly, with an insistent left hand, no clear sense of up- and down-beats and disconcerting pauses in the trio. Schubert’s finale is a sublime rondo which moves inexorably forward and here Kovacevich was Beethovenian, the tempo was fast and the tension was palpable, never once did he relax. At each appearance of the first subject another aspect of the theme was revealed and emphasised and each rolling extended climax brought true power used as an interpretative tool. Before the discursive last appearance of the theme the chords were jarring in their impact and the coda was a true summation of the whole work.
Kovacevich offered Chopin’s Mazurka in E minor (Opus 41/1) as an encore and, as in the Schubert, there was a whole range of rhythmic and tonal shading that made one hear the piece afresh.
This was magnificent playing. In a world where technical facility and blandness rule supreme, this was a salutary reminder of what a great artist can do – this was profoundly affecting.