Stephen Kovacevich 75th birthday concert with Martha Argerich

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Stephen Kovacevich 75th birthday concert, Wigmore Hall, London Monday 2 November

How to review a concert where two genuine piano legends quite literally collide on stage? Well since this was a celebration, it seems only right to celebrate the main protagonist first.

Stephen Kovacevich, who has recently celebrated his 75th birthday, was honoured with this concert by the Wigmore Hall, where he made his debut over fifty years ago. He chose to include two-piano works with Martha Argerich, herself a celebrated pianist whose public appearances, if on occasion irregular, are as greatly revered as ever – and with whom he has a daughter. For the two to be together in a musical sense, performing relatively unfamiliar repertoire – for the birthday boy at least – made an opportunity too good to miss.

It was perhaps just a bridge too far in the case of Debussy’s En blanc et noir, however. Not because the performance was bad, but because the necessarily short rehearsal time meant the use of two page turners. This unfortunately relegated the modest Kovacevich to the back of the stage, rendering him only partly visible. The musical chemistry was pronounced between the two, especially in the second movement where Debussy hauntingly evokes the sounds of First World War bugle calls and gunfire against the slow, stately movement of a Bach chorale, which Argerich solemnly intoned. Yet the outer movements were tense, partly because of page turning quirks (no fault of the turners themselves) and the sense of two players not yet fully in gear.

They were emphatically in the zone for Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, a terrific performance of the two-piano arrangement by the composer who is currently Kovacevich’s first love. The first movement punched at a considerable weight, with sharp ensemble and crisp rhythms, the speed a little slower than orchestras tend to take. Kovacevich himself clearly enjoyed the great second theme, usually assigned to the saxophone but beautifully phrased here.

The second movement was similarly fine, Argerich closely watching her partner, who was now nearest to the audience. This was his first public performance of a piece she has been performing for decades with friends, so it was natural she would want to ‘drive’ – but Kovacevich was very much her equal here and in the last dance, where rhythmic precision was key, they cut through the complexity of Rachmaninov’s writing to secure a powerful finish.

The second half of the concert immediately felt more relaxed, without the tension of page turning or multiple pianos to worry about. Instead Kovacevich gave from memory a lovely performance of Schubert’s final Piano Sonata in B flat, D960, one that flew in the face of the approach many pianists bring to this work. Rather than make it a final dying breath, he seemed to be saying this was music with plenty of life still to give. He made it so with faster tempo choices, a lack of repeats and phrasing that was at times unfussy but always affectionate.

Because of this the fabled slow movement was lovely, like a slow motion dance of contentment, coming after the first movement and its serenity – compromised by the rumblings of the lower left hand, though here they did not present too much threat. Kovacevich was keen to press on, each movement running into the next, and while there were a couple of choppy moments in the third movement, the intensity never let up. The feeling was of each of us being allowed into his own private recital room.

For an encore there was more Rachmaninov, Kovacevich beckoning the violinist Alina Ibragimova to join him from the audience for the Vocalise. This was a special moment, the pianist still discovering new music to perform even in his 76th year. He has made an incredibly good recovery from the stroke that threatened to end his career a few years back, and his disposition on stage is inspiring – modest but also affectionate. He is a musical treasure we should continue to nurture.

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