Interesting Berg/Schubert Recital from Stephen Kovacevich

Berg, Schubert: Stephen Kovacevich ( piano), Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 28.6.2015 (NR)


Berg, Sonata for Piano, op. 1
Schubert, Sonata in A major, D.959
Sonata in B flat major, D.960


The excellent RWCMD Steinway series of Sunday afternoon piano recitals at the Dora Stoutzker Hall continued with the veteran American maestro Stephen Kovacevich, performing an interestingly designed Viennese programme.

It might have been more interesting still had the Berg been played between the two big late Schuberts rather than in front of them; its dense, angular contrapuntal textures sit intriguingly alongside the spareness of the earlier music, spareness sometimes amounting to raw exposure. Sitting very low, hands praying-mantis style, fingers flat and wrists below the level of the keyboard, Kovacevich played throughout with firmness, weight, and a fine sense of the music’s overall direction, without always to my taste letting the lyricism in both composers breathe fully comfortably.

Both Schubert’s slow movements, for example, were taken at quite a rapid pace. The A major Sonata’s andantino, the favourite of both Beckett and Bresson, as chilly a progress through winter landscape as Schubert ever devised, icicles dripping and shivering around us, began here almost jauntily – making sense as a contrast with the wild outcries of the middle section. But maybe the outcries, their savage dissonances every bit as wincing as Berg’s, weren’t quite wild enough? The andante of the last sonata also seemed to be pressed forward a little too firmly, so that again the nature of the contrast with the middle section was a little blurred.

Where Kovacevich did score, in spades, was in the momentary shifts to the major at the end of both these movements, little temporary, beautiful havens in a desolation that quickly overwhelms them. The scherzos were light and fluent, and the finale of D.960 well-managed, which isn’t always the case: the reminiscences at the close of the work’s opening, the half-suggestions of a cyclical return to original confidence, were subtly rather than emphatically brought forward. I do not think this recital represented Kovacevich at the very top of his form, but with such a great pianist performing such great music there were bound to be multiple moments of compensation.

Neil Reeve

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