Honesty and Sensibility in Kovacevich Recital

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach, Beethoven, Schubert: Stephen Kovacevich (piano), Oxford Philomusica Piano Festival, Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford 30.7.2013 (CR)

Bach Prelude and Fugue No. 4 in C sharp minor BWV 849 from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1
Partita No. 4 in D major, BWV 828
Beethoven Piano Sonata No. 5 in C minor, Op. 10 No.1
Schubert 12 Ländler D 790 (selection)
Moment Musical No. 6 in A flat major, D 780
Beethoven Piano Sonata No. 31 in A flat major, Op. 110

Two rather disparate musical forms came together in Stephen Kovacevich’s recital, namely fugue and dance, speaking respectively to the cerebral and physical aspects of human nature. However, it was to the sensitivity of the heart that Kovacevich sought to communicate, as the seat where these two sides might come together. Moreover this was certainly attained because of, and not despite, his concentrated and committed approach to the music before him, evinced in performance by his undemonstrative and focused manner at the keyboard which was almost devoid of any distracting gesture – except for humming! (For me, at any rate, the latter feature was perfectly forgivable in view of what the former accomplished.)

Beginning with one of the great segments from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Kovacevich brought a liquid flow to the lapping quavers of the Prelude and then a sinuous account of the Fugue too, conceived really as one sweep with its subsequent subjects growing organically and briskly from the foregoing music. The whole was devised as a crescendo to the dramatic appearance of the first four-note subject deep in the bass register, after which the suspensions of the coda drew the music away again into quiet solemnity.

Similarly, in each of the dances of the Partita No. 4 the music tended to scud along seamlessly once set off on its course, unfettered by any jagged articulation or unexpected changes in dynamics or tonal shadings. This was Bach played honestly and without exaggeration – even the contrapuntal textures of the Overture were evenly balanced without any voice leading to guide the ear to any particular part over the others. But there was character and deliberation too, for instance with the lively swagger instilled into the Aria, such that it had something in common with the opening movement of the Italian Concerto, and the sturdy character of the Gigue’s running triplet semiquavers (which movement could perhaps have been lighter on its feet overall).

Although there was little period authenticity in the Bach performances, there was clearly a more Romantic sensibility at play in Kovacevich’s reading of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 5 – one of the first great works in the composer’s signature key of C minor. The opening dotted arpeggios were played breathlessly, and by not observing any of the Sonata’s repeats the performance seemed to pass in very little time. Kovacevich was by no means brusque but this was an uncompromising account that would have suited better still the terser and arguably more melodic sonatas of Beethoven’s middle and late-ish periods such as Op. 54, 79 or 90. The Adagio molto was not fast, but nor Kovacevich did yield to the extreme slowness of that marking either, as he gave the movement some impetus with the fast filigree runs that appear in the right hand. The quiet first theme of the finale grew out of the Adagio’s meditative closing chords, and after pursuing a passionate trajectory over the movement’s truncated sonata form, the Sonata came to a soft but still smouldering end.

In his selection of five of Schubert’s 12 Ländler D 790 Kovacevich evoked an increasingly Chopinesque mood with gentle rubatos and a warmness of tone which led naturally into the soulful performance of the Moment Musical No. 6, where the piano was made to resonate and sing with the hypnotic sequence of Schubert’s harmonies. This served as a contrasting upbeat to Beethoven’s penultimate sonata, Op. 110, whose opening was wrought by Kovacevich with direct simplicity but still pregnant with emotion. The scherzo-like Allegro molto was agile but measured, so that the offbeat accents did not divert the overall momentum.

The finale of the Sonata was brought under the closest scrutiny: it began with a doleful Adagio and Arioso, turning on an arresting interpretation of those 14 repeated high As, each coloured differently. The culminating Fuga bears clear links with Bach, but as with Beethoven’s other late fugues, it stems from a source of raw, visceral energy. Even if this is not exactly dance-like, Kovacevich rightly brought the strands of this recital together by overlaying the Fuga’s thematic working out with a muscular and rhythmic physicality, particularly in its inverted recapitulation and a wild coda.

Kovacevich offered the first of Brahms’s Klavierstücke Op. 119 as an encore, with the opening high chords resplendent and starry in tone – but not indulgent or impressionistic – hovering over a poised bass accompaniment.

Curtis Rogers