On his 80th birthday, Stephen Kovacevich thoroughly deserved the audience’s cheers at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach, Schubert: Stephen Kovacevich (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 17.10.2020 performance reviewed on Wigmore Hall’s YouTube. (CC)

Stephen Kovacevich

Bach – Partita No.4 in D, BWV 828 (1728)

Schubert – Piano Sonata in B flat, D960 (1828)

The great pianist Stephen Kovacevich was celebrating his 80th birthday on this very day (and was on antibiotics, we were told – non-Covid, although we were reminded, he played his last pre-lockdown concert in Wuhan, China, now a place of global notoriety).

Kovacevich first played at the Wigmore Hall in 1961, when he played Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. There is a rich history, then, at work here; plus, a palpable warmth from the audience (more on warmth, or the lack of it, later).

Sitting characteristically low, he began Bach’s Fourth Partita with a startlingly fragile Ouvertüre, as if to emphasise the daring nature of Bach’s writing. The bare textures imparted a loneliness to the music that seemed to infiltrate even the dance-like music of the fugal Allegro. Prior to the concert, Kovacevich had referred to the ‘heart-breaking whirls of counterpoint’ of the Allemande in conversation with the announcer Tom Service, and indeed the performance was remarkable in its Affekt. This was a near-ideal of Bach playing on the piano, the capabilities of the instrument used but nevertheless the integrity of Bach’s writing remained impeccably of Bach without layered-on Romanticism, Bach’s harmonic adventures as fresh as the day they were penned. The robustly intended Courante retained a spring in its step despite the odd slip, but it was the delightful close of the Aria that reminded us of Bach’s humanity.

But it was the Sarabande that was the clear emotional heart of the reading, a movement in which Bach approaches the sublime, and in Kovacevich’s hands that is exactly where we were headed. It was, with the ensuing Menuet, the crown of Kovacevich’s reading, the Menuet a necessary cleansing of palette before the fanfare gestures of the Gigue launched a statement notable as much for its sophistication as for its buoyancy.

An extended break between pieces was necessary so Kovacevich could warm up his fingers: because of Covid-19, the hall must be cold, apparently, which does not bode well for Winter concerts this year. A certain level of padding was understandable from Tom Service: it was difficult not to be reminded of the BBC Prom many years ago when the mechanism for raising the piano failed, and the Radio 3 commentator ended up desperate for subjects, rambling on about cricket.

But the Schubert, when it came, was revelatory. The fine singing line, the perfect pacing (and perfectly judged rests), the structural awareness but most of all the sense of desolation were all palpable, the famous bass trill taking on huge import on each return, indelibly colouring the musical events around it. When it came to the Andante sostenuto, the cold heart of the sonata, the piano’s own Winterreise (here with some vocal contributions from Kovacevich clearly audible over the live stream), few pianists have achieved the intensity of the opening (live, Mitsuko Uchida and Elisabeth Leonskaja spring to mind). Kovacevich’s Andante sostenuto included more light than many, though; one could almost see rays of light.

Yes, there was a certain fragility to the Scherzo a certain compromised capriciousness, but I for one would not swap the mysteriously shifting Trio for anyone else’s. Nor would I easily trade Kovacevich’s luminosity in the finale, a performance of dappled, autumnal light that sought, and occasionally achieved, transcendental calm.

The cheers from the audience were richly deserved; Kovacevich offered playing from the heart, straight to the heart. A lifetime’s experience was distilled into this one performance. Schumann it was who offered consolation in the encore, the rich, warm-toned balm of Schumann’s Romance in F sharp major, Op.28/2 (which was announced as being in G flat major, for some reason).

Colin Clarke

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