A Disappointing Recital by Stephen Kovacevich

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Beethoven and Schubert: Stephen Kovacevich (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 16.7.2012 (MB)

Beethoven: Piano Sonata no.5 in C minor, op.10 no.1
: Piano Sonata no.31 in A-flat major, op.110
: Piano Sonata in B-flat major, D 960

Sad to say, this must rank as one of the most disappointing piano recitals I have heard in quite some time. Whether Stephen Kovacevich’s pianism has deteriorated, or whether the recording studio has worked wonders, it is difficult for me to say, this being the first time I have heard  him give a full recital, but there were only a few glimmers of something less than dispiriting here.

The Beethoven C minor sonata, op.10 no.1, opened brusquely, more Presto than Molto allegro e con brio. There was no let up for the second subject either. More worryingly, a good amount of passagework was blurred. Though there was a sort of defiance to the performance that might just about be called Beethovenian, humour, let alone charm, were notable only by their absence. This was Beethoven alla Toscanini, albeit without the technical control. The opening of the slow movement was refreshing, indeed quite beautifully voiced. Phrasing soon stiffened, however, suffocating the music. A greater line was absent, not through the more frequently-encountered pianistic habit of pulling the music around to no greater end, but through a literalness so dogged that it apparently prevented Kovacevich from joining the dots. Harmonic jolts registered with force, it must be admitted, and some phrases were lifted up from the mundane: a frustrating, tantalising sign of what might have been. The finale benefited from a return of the first movement’s insistence, but that all too readily tipped over into brutalisation. Technical insecurities were, however, more disturbing, some passagework again fluffed or skated over.

There was promise to the opening bars of op.110, beguiling in their apparent simplicity. Yet Kovacevich again tended to skate over some of the faster passages. For the most part, the music meandered along nicely enough, sometimes vehemently, but to say that this is not enough for Beethoven would register as the understatement of the year. The scherzo veered, sadly, between the disjunct and the straightforwardly incoherent. Beethoven’s Klagender Gesang, if hardly intense or otherwise moving, at least did not fall too short technically. The first appearance of the fugue was better still, voiced and directed meaningfully. The return of the slow material, however, was oddly halting, and the fugue in its second incarnation was reduced to muddy incoherence. Thank goodness I was not having to take dictation, for I should have failed miserably to discern vast swathes of the notes.

That said, there was hope, following the interval. The first movement of Schubert’s final sonata opened with considerable sensitivity, not least to inner voices, though ‘sensitive’ is certainly not the word I should use to describe the weird combination of ultra-abrupt, even brutal, curtailment of the left-hand quaver in bar 9 whilst permitting the right hand’s chord to continue to resonate almost indefinitely. The same thing happened in the recapitulation – there was no exposition repeat – so it was definitely intended, but to my ears at least it sounded very odd indeed. There remained many instances of touch hardening and of undue brusqueness, but at least there was to be gleaned greater Beethovenian purpose to the development section than there had been to any of Beethoven’s own developments. If Schubert’s music did not move me once – a disturbing thing to say about this work – the performance nevertheless gave a sense of a greater whole. The slow movement was certainly not sentimentalised; it was faster than I can ever recall hearing, or at least so it sounded. Again, in context, that was something of a relief, though no depths were plumbed. As for the scherzo, it was so rushed as to be garbled, denying any real impression of what the music might be, let alone mean. It was faultlessly metronomic, if that is your thing, but the trio lurched around as if the metronome were malfunctioning. Kovacevich’s tempo for the finale was more reasonable, and potentially manageable, but his performance was heavy-handed beyond belief. The rondo theme was bereft of light and shade, and so it went on and on, dogged by quite the wrong sort of grim insistence.


Mark Berry