Monday, 16 July 2012

Stephen Kovacevich - Beethoven and Schubert, 16 July 2012

Wigmore Hall

Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.5 in C minor, op.10 no.1
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.31 in A-flat major, op.110
Schubert – 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 but 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 utter mundanity: 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 that 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 and sounding for the most part as if it were actually piano music. 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 so 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.

9 comments:

Lisa Hirsch said...

Oh, lord, I am tremendously sorry to hear this. I love him on record. Given his history, it certainly sounds like deterioration.....

backrow boy said...

couldn't agree more. We left at the interval, dreading what he wd do to the Schubert. And there was the strange humming from somewhere - from him? The Piano - may it put him off. I heard him play many years ago and he was great then. It was a sad occasion last night.

backrow boy said...

could not agree more. We left at the interval, dreading what he wd do to the Schubert. There was also the strange buzzing sound coming from somewhere - from him? The piano? He was once a great pianist ) I heard him perform the Emperor Concerto many years ago with real authority - but last night at WH was a very sad occasion.

backrow boy said...

couldn't agree more. We left at the interval, dreading what he wd do to the Schubert. And there was the strange humming from somewhere - from him? The Piano?. I heard him play many years ago and he was great then. It was a sad occasion last night.

EC said...

I'm glad to see that I'm not alone in what I thought.. most of the audience seemed very enthusiastic! This was the most disappointing concert I've heard this year, though I admit to having some expectations given the pianist and the works being played.

I've disagreed with one or two of your recent reports (Vienna Phil and Les Troyens - music, not production).. but I agree with every word here.

There was one gem in the evening though - the encore (Bach Sarabande from the 4th Partita).. I would never have thought (from what came before) but it was a beautiful few minutes.

Mark Berry said...

EC: Just my luck that I left before the encore. Oh well...

Backrow boy: The buzzing sound was very off-putting; I couldn't work out what it was either. There were also, from somewhere at the very back of the hall, a few bouts of prolonged and very loud heavy breathing; I doubt that Kovacevich would have heard them but it was certainly distracting for those of us who did. Goodness knows what it must have been like for those seated nearer.

Lisa: Yes, the whole experience saddened and surprised me greatly.

I suppose it would be dull if everything were to conform to expectations. In live performance, one has to take the rough with the smooth.

Anonymous said...

A few things in reponse to various comments: the humming noise is, sadly, indeed from Kovacevich. This grunting has developed over the last few years or so - if you look up reviews of his Schubert/Takemitsu recital at the Wigmore Hall from 2 years ago you'll find similar complaints.

Re. his uneven playing, again sadly it's been the case in the last few years. He did suffer a stroke a few years ago, and his technique is audibly worse after. I heard him in a truly great Schubert A Major Sonata in 2006, but in 2010 he was pretty sloppy in the same piece. The musicianship still came through, but it made for more uncomfortable listening.

As for yesterday's recital, I thought he improved as he went along. He was much better in the Schubert than in the Beethovens (especially the slow movement), and the Bach sarabande he did as an encore was phenomenal. I'd like to hear him in a recital of slow, quiet pieces that don't tax the technique too much, because he still has that lovely sensitive touch in his pianissimo.

Capriccio said...

I think this is definitely due to his having had a stroke. I'm amazed that he is still playing at all. It is tremendously sad that his facility is so impaired, but occasionally the musician still comes through in moments of heart stopping musicality. At least when I saw him late last year.

56d7b2ba-47e2-11e3-807d-000bcdcb471e said...

Those fans of his (I ran for president 40 years ago, so to speak :) ) here will want to know, if they do not, that his first round of Beethoven, late-1960s to early 1970s, is to my ear like no Beethoven ever recorded, strong, crisp, forward-moving, tremendous rhythmic strength and clarity, not excessively muscular. (Last three sonatas plus Diabelli.) Some of it was done with a serious fever, according to an Igor Kipnis writeup in one of the audio magazines. I return to it all the time; the EMI not so much. I hear something wonderful and nearly unique every time. Hard to find but well worth it.