Great Performers Series: Stephen Kovacevich

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Published: 20th July, 2019
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American pianist Stephen Kovacevich, a frequent visitor to these shores, has for more than half a century delighted audiences with his extensive and wide-ranging catalogue of recordings, as well as in concert. Assuredly, one of the greats of twentieth century pianism, Kovacevich is now an elder statesman in the piano cosmos, so it was fitting that he would gift to the Melbourne Recital Centre Great Performers Series his readings of three indisputable piano masterworks of three giants in classical music, Bach, Beethoven and Schubert, Nos. 2, 1 and 8 respectively in the recent ABC Classic FM top 100 composers survey.

The recital started somewhat uneasily as Kovacevich, normally a very relaxed and not-easily ruffled performer, seemed unsettled at first by the on-stage lighting and thereafter by a chilling draught. This was understandable. Performing before a near capacity audience on a nightly basis can be stressful enough without distractions that don’t allow you to perform at your stellar best. Nevertheless, Kovacevich, ever-the-gentleman, apologetically sought to rectify the problems with as little fuss as possible. And so the recital began, the pianist poised very low, and very still, before his Steinway D.

Bach’s Partita No 4, one of the German Kapellmeister’s first published works, is surely one of the greatest collections of stylized dances for Baroque keyboard. Kovacevich perfectly captured the festive nature of the opening Overture. Rhythmic double-dotting in the French style characterised the majestic introduction, even if intermittently the pulse seemed slightly unstable. In the succeeding bi-partite dances Kovacevich opted for first repeats only, but what a delight they were as he highlighted left-hand linear movement to sustain interest. The German Allemande was noteworthy for its subdued lyricism, while the ensuing French Courante was a model of unalloyed joy. The closing Gigue did not flow as easily as the other dances, with sporadic loss of linear and articulatory clarity, yet still this was a performance to savour.

The Sonata in A flat Opus 110 is the middle sibling of the final trilogy of piano sonatas that Beethoven composed in 1821 when totally afflicted by deafness. It is nevertheless one of his profoundest utterances, lyrical from first note to last, and unique in formal structure, ending with not one, but two fugues. Kovacevich’s abundant musicianship and experience served him well in capturing the unfettered lyricism of the opening movement. The bucolic spirit of the scherzo-like second movement – in an unexpected 2/4 rhythm – proved somewhat elusive, though it must be noted that Kovacevich absolutely nailed the treacherous wide-ranging leaps of the central trio section. Kovacevich was also in his element in the opening of the finale – its meditative calm, often bordering on despair, well realised through refined harmonic and tonal nuance. Like the earlier Bach Gigue however, the two fugues lost their focus on this occasion, as somewhat generous pedaling impaired textural and linear clarity. The MRC acoustic, as consistently wonderful as it is for singers and string players, can be unforgiving to pianists in this regard.

After interval came the mighty Sonata in B flat major D. 960, effectively Schubert’s last will and testament for keyboard, written in the months immediately preceding his too-early death at the age of 31. This is a work that Kovacevich has lived with for decades, and this came across most clearly in the second movement Andante sostenuto, whose sense of desolation, and resignation, recalls Schubert’s epic song-cycle Die Winterreise. The delicacy and refinement of Kovacevich’s pianissimo playing was spell-binding here. While the outer movements perhaps lacked a certain tonal focus, and the genial third movement tended to emphasize leggiero fragility, at the expense of an unassuming cheerfulness, which better characterises it, it was worth coming just to hear Kovacevich’s eloquently intimate, spacious second movement. Here the master pianist was at his imperial best.

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Glenn Riddle reviewed Stephen Kovacevich’s piano recital presented at Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on July 17, 2019.