BBC Proms 2016 – Shostakovich, Rachmaninov & Emily Howard from Alexey Stadler, Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic

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Alexey Stadler pictured during his performance of the Shostakovich Cello Concerto no.1, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko (c) Chris Christodoulou

Prom 53; Royal Albert Hall, 25 August 2016

You can listen to the Prom on the BBC iPlayer

The BBC Proms should be commended for their commitment to new music, though this does come with a caveat, for it is not often that a commission for the Proms makes it to a second or third performance. Hopefully that fate will not befall Emily Howard’s Torus, a joint commission with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, who gave it a thoroughly committed and virtuosic first performance under Vasily Petrenko.

Torus is based on a mathematical phenomenon, but to Howard’s credit she did not make this the domineering feature of the piece – if she did, like all good composers, it was part of the essential framework rather than explicitly signposted. Instead we were able to enjoy the colours of the large symphony orchestra, and especially the percussion, the three players using bows on their cymbals to make the textures glint towards the end.

Though subtitled Concerto for Orchestra, there was no display of gravity defying, musical athletics for the sake of it. Rather we enjoyed the orchestra as an instrument, the melodic content taking on a distinctive falling motif as though the music were heading for a trap door.

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Shostakovich’s popular Cello Concerto no.1 followed, with a last minute substitute, Alexey Stadler, standing in for the unfortunately ill Truls Mørk. Any doubts about inferiority were immediately quelled, the young Russian cellist finding the soul of the music in a searching account of the slow movement and cadenza in particular. Petrenko and the RLPO, so attuned to this composer’s music in their award winning accounts of his symphonies for Naxos, were superb in support, especially horn player Timothy Jackson – but Stadler rightly stole the show, adjusting to the acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall with commendable ease. His beautiful tone brought both pain and hope to the solo part in equal measure, and led to a gorgeous encore in the form of the Sarabande from Bach’s Solo Cello Suite no.2.

Finally Petrenko led his orchestra in the music of another composer with whom they share great familiarity – Rachmaninov. There are several warhorses in his output that are arguably overplayed in concert, but the Symphony no.3 is not one of them – and how wonderful it was in this account, with soulful melodies, sleights of hand from Petrenko and sudden bursts of light from the orchestra.

The tricky syncopations of the finale were expertly handled, the orchestra delivering the suddenly loud snaps like the slamming of a door, a thrilling effect in the live arena. Yet they were also alive to the music’s lyrical and occasionally less certain undercurrents, where leader Thelma Handy was a superb soloist.

As an encore Petrenko brought out Shostakovich’s arrangement of YoumansTea For Two, and gave it a brilliant send-up, as though conducting the last night. It was a beautifully judged encore, and showed again just how much this orchestra and conductor enjoy working together – which is what it’s all about, surely!

Ben Hogwood

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Stuart Fitzsimon on Rachmaninov, Shostakovich and Emily Howard

Ask The Audience Arcana at the Proms
fitzThis is the latest in the series where Arcana invites a friend to a Prom who does not normally listen to classical music. In an interview after the concert each will share their musical upbringing and their thoughts on the concert – whether good or bad! Here, Stuart Fitzsimon (above) gives his thoughts on Prom 53.

Alexey Stadler (cello), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko

Emily Howard Torus (2016, world premiere); Shostakovich Cello Concerto no.1 (1959); Rachmaninov Symphony no.3 (1935-38)

You can listen on the BBC iPlayer here

Arcana: Fitz, what was your musical upbringing?

It wasn’t particularly musical – music was never forced upon me – but I played the guitar as a school kid, and I did Grades 1 and 2 with classical guitar. I was in numerous choirs – the school choir, a chamber choir, the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy Choir. I performed on Radio 4, and on tours in Switzerland and Italy. From a classical perspective I never played on a classical instrument. My brother played saxophone and keyboard, but I wouldn’t consider any of these to be orchestral instruments.

There were records in the house – more tapes than records – and I remember on holiday taking my mum and dad’s Beach Boys 20 Golden Greats tape to France on holiday and playing it on loop. I remember their Beatles records, but I was never encouraged musically really – it just all happened!

I went to University. I originally wanted to be a policeman, but they wouldn’t offer me criminology as I didn’t have a law degree – they offered me part criminology, part sociology. I enjoyed the sociology far more, decided I didn’t want to be a policeman any more. So I did a degree, which didn’t have anything to do with what I wanted to do in my career or life!

So I started going to gigs, and meeting people who were into similar music as me – dirty London Indie of the time! I started managing bands, putting on bands, and realised then that I wanted to work in the music industry. I knew lots of people in bands and ended up going to a lot of those gigs for free, and thought why don’t I start putting on some bands? So that’s how my Flook night started that I did in London.

Could you name three musical acts you love, and why you love them?

Three acts I love are The Libertines, The Cribs and the Super Furry Animals.

The Super Furries are a band I fell in love with, having missed their first two albums. I got bored of the guitar because I couldn’t be bothered to practice around 14 or 15, and I stopped listening to pop music…but then I got into it again and went through the mandatory Oasis and Blur thing at the time in the mid-1990s. Then I started looking at the lesser bands I didn’t pick up at the time and Super Furries were one of them.

I remember listening to the Guerrilla album in the garden of my mate’s house, and it was the weirdest album I’d been introduced to by friends. Up until then it was dad rock, man rock, and then suddenly you’ve got this band writing stuff like intros before track 1 on the CD player! Playing a CD and immediately rewinding it to minus two minutes or whatever, like a secret hidden track, is pretty bizarre!

The rest of the album contains songs about chewing gum and mocking the concept of having a mobile phone. This was before they became ubiquitous! Super Furries saw all that kind of stuff coming, and knew how it was going to change people’s lives. It was a bizarre album for the instruments they used, the sound they made – the first weird band I got into!

I went to university and discovered a whole load of music I didn’t know about, the widest range of music from meeting different people. After that you settle into what you know and love and social groups that come off the back of that. After university I started gigging more and going on internet forums – before Facebook, MySpace – Face Party and Friendster were the networks of the time!

When I wasn’t doing data entry I was wasting time on internet forums, and the one I was on most was The Libertines.org. I met a hell of a lot of people through that – some of my very best friends today! It was a new thing in 2003-4, knowing people from log-in names and stuff. I remember when I first went to meet them in Camden and I told my mum, I think she was concerned I was going to get stabbed that night – what if they’re murderers?!

They didn’t kill me though, and the people I met from that social circle are very dear to me these days too. It all stems from the fact it was the Libertines board. My job is probably a result of people I met on that board, and knowing I wanted to get a job in music. I didn’t talk about the music to be fair! They were the band for a year-18 months who had their moment where they burned very brightly, and they pissed it all up the wall. They’re not the same band they were then, but I still love them for what they were.

The Cribs were one of the bands who got tagged on to what was known as the ‘Nigel’ scene, bands like Selfish C**t, The Unstrung, Special Needs. Some of the bands made the best out of being in that category, and The Cribs somehow got associated with it despite having nothing to do with London! They played a lot in Lodnon, stayed and crashed down here a lot, and I ended up going to a lot of their gigs.

They’re definitely my favourite live band, probably recorded band too, and I was fortunate to go in the studio when they recorded their second album, hearing Hey Scenesters! for the first time and recording with Edwyn Collins, an absolute legend. I was fortunate to record with them (on the song Martell) – they’re lovely blokes and a brilliant band. They’ve done very well to hold on to what they had in their early 20s.

What has been your experience of classical music so far?

I don’t really have any, although I was in choirs – I sang famous pieces like Verdi’s Requiem, Handel’s Messiah and Zadok the Priest. On the basis they are classical pieces it’s probably through those, singing them in concerts. In terms of going to watch music I can’t think of many situations other than the 6Music Prom with Laura Marling in 2013. I saw Carmen at the Royal Albert Hall but would say that was an opera rather than classical.

How would you rate your first Proms experience?

It was very interesting. I’d never considered going to a classical concert and standing up, like you do in the arena, ‘in the pit’. That was quite surreal, with people standing, sitting, lying down – all in their own world. It was a different type of person at the sides, a bit older, wiser, maybe richer. I really enjoyed it, I wasn’t expecting to stand but it was unexpected and enjoyable!

I’ve always thought of the Proms as a classical music event but as I was listening to the first piece I didn’t think it sounded classical! I would say it was more orchestral than anything else. The orchestra pinned it all together. The first piece she was talking about science and mathematics had influenced her, and it didn’t sound classical in the same way that the Shostakovich did, the more sorrowful, mournful Russian piece. The symphony screamed ‘classical’ at me though!

What might you improve about the experience?

It had the formula you spoke about before the concert, where you might get a piece you didn’t know to start with, and then the cellist – who was exceptional! – and then the symphony, the larger piece with all the instruments. I think that approach works well. If you started with the symphony people would probably leave when they’ve heard the bit they know, so I understand why it works that way.

I don’t know if I would necessarily change anything but I might do something more aligned to my personal tastes – musicians I love, a piece I have an affinity with – thinking about films I love with classical or orchestral music in. There are definitely things I would want to do but I don’t think I would change the theme of tonight’s event, I enjoyed it. The symphony was what I would expect from a night out at the Proms – quiet and then loud – but I loved it.

Would you go again?

Yeah, definitely. It’s not something I’ve ever gone and bought tickets for but I didn’t know you could do the standing option, and I’d do that again. You didn’t tell me what this night was about and I didn’t research it, but I was pleasantly surprised. If I was looking through a Proms calendar there is no reason why I would have chosen tonight, but it was probably a perfect example about what they are about. I would definitely go again, and probably go to a random Proms event – it would be as rewarding as someone you know. So after that I would wholeheartedly recommend going to watch the Proms!

Verdict: SUCCESS

 

Calin Huma – ‘Carpatica’ Symphony World Premiere

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Richard Whitehouse on the London premiere of a new work from Romanian composer Calin Huma from the Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra of London under Christopher Petrie, with Leslie Howard joining them for Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto

Cadogan Hall, London on Thursday 17 December

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto no.2 (1901)

Enescu: Romanian Rhapsody no.2 (1901)

Calin Huma: Symphony, ‘Carpatica’ (London premiere) (2015)

Leslie Howard (piano), Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra of London / Christopher Petrie

The Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra of London has demonstrably established itself on the London calendar over its two years of existence, with tonight’s programme surely the most enterprising yet. Leslie Howard was on hand for Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto – and a reading which, while offering little in the way of a fresh perspective, was for the most part finely articulated and well-coordinated. The opening Moderato was a touch stolid in its earlier stages, though the second theme was raptly conveyed on its return, then the central Adagio had pathos and, in its scherzo section, deftness to spare. The twin themes of the final Allegro were pointedly contrasted, the PCO nimbly negotiating the fugato at its centre, and the return of the ‘big tune’ capping the whole in a generous yet not over-bearing peroration.

Music by Romanian composers followed in the second half, which began with the welcome revival of Enescu’s Second Romanian Rhapsody. While its predecessor has latterly regained much of its former popularity, this piece is heard but seldom – its melodic eloquence at one with its largely ruminative persona. Christopher Petrie assuredly had its measure – whether in the soulful expression of its initial pages (Enescu’s deployment of traditional melodies at its most alluring), cumulative build-up to its fervent central climax, then the gradual ebbing away of emotion towards its close; a sense of place fleetingly if tangibly evoked. Hopefully this orchestra will go on to perform other works by Enescu – not least the First Orchestral Suite, whose mesmerising unison ‘Prelude’ would doubtless be relished by the PCO strings.

For now, listeners were treated to the London premiere (and only the second performance)   of the ‘Carpatica’ Symphony by Calin Huma (b 1965), the Romanian entrepreneur who has been based in Hampshire these past two decades. Huma has professed himself an avowed neo-Romantic in terms of aesthetic, and the present piece looks back beyond Enescu to the Romantic nationalism of Eduard Caudella (1841-1924) while evincing the melodic directness of more recent figures as Nicolae Kirculescu (1903-85), whose Moment Muzical (or at least its main theme) was well known to Romanian listeners in the 1960s and ‘70s. Huma’s work shared something of its unabashed nostalgia, yet whether the three movements of this half-hour piece amounted to anything which approaches a cohesive conception is open to doubt.

That it failed to do so was hardly the fault of the PCO, whose strings played with lustre, or of Petrie – who directed with sure conviction of where this rhapsodic music ought to be headed. Not that this prevented the lengthy first movement from losing focus before its final climax, while its successor – more a slow intermezzo than a slow movement – would have benefitted from a more flowing tempo. The finale brought a welcome degree of energy, its main theme capping the whole with a decisiveness in which the ends came closest to justifying the means.

A section from Petrie’s own Fantasia on Christmas Carols made for a winsome and appealing encore. More Romanian music from this source would be most welcome: the 90th birthday of Pascal Bentoiu, doyen of post-war composers, in April 2017 provides just such an opportunity.

You can listen to more music from the Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra of London on their website

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.

Stephen Kovacevich – a truly great pianist

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Steven Kovacevich Photo: David Thompson/EMI Classics

If you were asked to name some of the world’s greatest living classical pianists, the chances are it would not be long at all until you got to the name Stephen Kovacevich.

Kovacevich has just reached the age of 75, but despite some recent health problems it is clear when Arcana has the privilege of meeting him that he is in good physical, mental and musical shape. He is the perfect host, too, pouring coffee as we prepare to discuss aspects of his career to this point, based around the recent issue of a handsome box set with the collected recordings he has made for Philips. These include legendary performances of Bartók, Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms – all of which he will discuss over the course of the next half hour.

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To begin with, however, it’s back to the start. What are his earliest memories of playing the piano? “I can’t remember the very first one”, he considers, “but I know that it was in San Pedro, about an hour and a half south of Los Angeles. My grandmother had an upright piano, and I probably tinkered with that but I just remember that it was there. I don’t remember much. Then I had at around the age of seven the local piano teacher, who was OK, then I had lessons with a very good teacher in San Francisco where my family moved to Berkeley. I remember thinking that I wasn’t very good, because I found it difficult at the age of eight or nine, but by the age of eleven I was playing quite well. I gave quite a good concert then, and looking back I probably wouldn’t be ashamed of it today – or maybe I would be! Then I studied in San Francisco until I came here to work with Myra Hess, a great artist.”

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Myra Hess

“She was a profound artist”, he says of his teacher, “and I had a choice of going to Juilliard, with a scholarship at the college there, or coming to London. I chose London because of the repertoire, and Myra Hess’s repertoire interested me more. Juilliard is so competitive.”
What were the lasting things he learned from study with her? ““I was 18 or 19”, he recalls, “and I could play well, but I think it was rather monotonous in terms of variation of sound. I remember the first lesson was on the Brahms Variations on a theme of Handel.

The theme, which can be sight read, we worked 45 minutes just on that, trying to get a ‘trumpet sound’ that was perfect, a sound that was ‘dolce’. Just working on that started to provoke other areas of your imagination. She was a great teacher, with repertoire that interested me at that time. I hadn’t liked Beethoven very much until I heard her play it, and she really understood late period Beethoven. I was privileged and benefited greatly from that, because genuinely – if immodestly – it was the only music I was interested in.”

I mention to Stephen how I have been listening recently to his recording of Bartók’s Piano Concerto no.2, made with Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra for Philips:

“It’s one of the best I ever did!” he says emphatically. “Everything I could do musically, mechanistically, emotionally, is there, and I was lucky because when I first heard the piece I then went and bought the score. I’m not being coy, but I just didn’t think I could play it! I dropped in on Colin Davis and I wasn’t fishing but I simply said, “Colin, I’ve heard this incredible piece but I think it’s beyond my abilities”. He was in charge at the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the time, and he asked me to play it at a Prom nine months later.”

“I knew if I couldn’t do it that I could always cancel, but that I would never forgive myself for not trying! I had never played anything so difficult – and actually there isn’t anything more difficult! It was the making of me – in some ways a bit too much, because I developed muscles, and a sound which was on the cusp sometimes of being too …but I had it in my repertoire. It made a lot of things possible, but also psychologically, if you can play the third Rachmaninov concerto, the second Bartók, the second Brahms maybe, the Beethoven Hammerklavier Sonata, if you can do these things it gives you a certain pride. The Chopin Études, I can’t play them properly but I can play them alright. But Bartok’s Second I can play. So that gave me some confidence. It’s a frightening piece, you know!”

Kovacevich goes on to reminisce about his early experiences with the concerto. “The first performance I gave was at the Proms, and a very distinguished composer who learned with Myra Hess, he turned the pages for me. In the middle of the second movement he got lost, and just sat down! Thank God the passage is so difficult that I had memorised it. He just sat down and gave up, and this was a live Prom!”

And what about that recording session? Just listening to the results, the listener gets an idea of the sheer adrenalin generated by the performance. “Colin and I had performed it ten times – in New York, and on tour with the Scottish National Orchestra, and in several performances with the BBC. I knew the recording went well because the first performance at the Proms was OK but nothing special. Then the next performance I stopped in the studio recording, but the performance after that was the opening night of the Edinburgh Festival, a live broadcast. I was so terrified I couldn’t even do the BBC balance test. Can you believe it?! They did it cold. There is a passage which I had missed before and two of my friends, very famous and wonderful young players, they embraced each other when it was coming up, and I got through it! And when I did I went completely nuts and really played out of my skull. So I knew if I could survive a concert then I could do a recording. I just went for it, and I remember Colin knew it very well by then too, we knew how we did it together, so we did not have any problems. I think it took three sessions. One session we concentrated on the sound but then we did two and a half sessions on it.”

What was it about Stephen’s relationship with Sir Colin that worked so well? “Well it stopped, but when it worked I can only say there was similar passion and energy, and in those a similar sense of tempo. He then became more spacious, so it didn’t work because I didn’t do that – and both are perfectly valid journeys. At that time he was a firebrand, with the Beethovens and the Brahms and the Bartók. I think he loved the first and third, and that’s appropriate. At the time he was doing the Rite of Spring but interestingly enough he stopped becoming interested in doing it. I had to trust him on it but I didn’t understand it. I think he turned away from that kind of wild stuff. I never heard anyone conduct Berlioz the way he did; I heard two staged performances of The Trojans – just marvellous. Why he stopped, I don’t know, but it did. Thankfully we did more Mozart piano concertos, Schumann, Grieg, Bartók and both Brahms, Stravinsky and all the Beethovens.”

One of Kovacevich’s favourite stories is of his recording with Martha Argerich of Bartók’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion. One of the pianos had been dropped, and was unplayable – but somehow they found a replacement so that recording could take place at an unearthly hour. Was that the right time to record it after all?! “I think the second movement is definitely a late night piece”, he agrees, “but the rest is so difficult – almost as difficult as the Second Piano Concerto. Again it’s a piece of savagery. The first movement, if that’s not an onslaught I don’t know what is! As you know the piano was dropped, and they tried to say that nothing had happened, and then at about 8 at night they were trying to find another piano for the session. Steinway was closed, I don’t know how they found it, but at about two in the morning another piano arrived, and that’s when Martha starts working. I was gaga at that stage but the adrenalin kicked in, and we finished probably around 6:30 or 7:00. If you had said I was going to be recording at 2:30 then of course I wouldn’t have accepted it, but there was nothing else we could do!”

Kovacevich will give a concert at the Wigmore Hall in honour of his birthday, taking place on Monday 2 November. The first half consists of Debussy’s En blanc et noir and Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, both with Argerich at the second piano. When did he last play these pieces? “I last played the Debussy with Martha at her festival in Lugano, about two months ago, so that is in our fingers.

The Rachmaninov is the first time I’ve ever played it, and I just came back from Brussels two or three days ago where we rehearsed. I think our rehearsing is done. My new love is Rachmaninov. I’ve always loved him but now I think I’ve completely fallen for him!” Is that in a sense that makes him want to play his music? “Yes. I’d like to learn some of the solo music, but it’s no joke at my age to learn this type of repertoire, especially when it’s not the kind of repertoire that is my home territory. Now my favourite Rachmaninov concerto is the second. I can’t play it, but I have a few months where I don’t have a concert. I have to learn the Bartók Second Violin Sonata, and I will try and do the Second Piano Concerto or some of the shorter pieces.”

Clearly he still has a keen spirit of discovery, and I ask what it is about Bartók that particularly appeals to him? “The rage, because you feel much of the music – rather similar to Beethoven – has protest, anger, rage at the brutality and suffering that people go through. When you feel it is not just an individual thing, but society is doing it – like the Second World War which was going on – that’s a feeling of oppression. I think he captures that sense of rage and I think Beethoven is the only one to my mind who does it in the same way. Stravinsky’s rage in The Rite of Spring is ferocious, but you don’t feel it is a negative piece. Whereas Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, the String Quartets, the Piano Concerto no.2, the Out of Doors suite – the music of the night and The Chase especially. The Chase (the last movement of Out of Doors) is about one animal chasing another, with a chomp at the end! That’s it, but it is not music for Blue Peter!”

I note that when listening to the Out of Doors Suite, it seems Bartók finds parts of the piano that no one else seems to find. Kovacevich nods. “The piano writing is magnificent, and the music of the night – Ravel or Debussy did not write more exquisite music and super sensitive sonorities, but the music of the night in the second piano concerto, that’s a dark atmosphere, and the chase is frightening.”

This is perhaps why some see Bartók’s music as containing roots of rock, and I suggest it may be why his music has been used in horror films. Stephen agrees, but has more to add. “Another fact that isn’t known about him, which I have read, is that he had the feeling of an isolated person. When he was very young he had a skin disease that was so unpleasant to observe that at that age, only his mother could touch him. It cleared up, and he had beautiful skin after, but there was a feeling that he was probably physically isolated. I’m guessing but I think it stayed with him.”

A love of dance also stayed with Bartók in his music. “Absolutely. You take the Mazurkas of Chopin, you push it a bit further and you get some of the dance rhythms in Bartók. Also a composer who is surprisingly dark sometimes in his dances, but where nobody plays them, is Grieg. He is not the boy next door! I love Grieg. He wrote so little, but Peer Gynt is wonderful. It is also terrifying, and I find Anitra’s Dance scares me! There is a shadow there.”

The Philips set includes Kovacevich’s recordings of the late Brahms piano works, providing a nice contrast to the concertos:

Does he find now that at the age of 75 he appreciates composer’s late works more than he used to? “No, I don’t think so. I have always had a weakness for composers’ third period works. Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Brahms as well. I was always intrigued, so I don’t think about that.” Can it go the other way, to exploring composers’ young works? “I enjoy early Beethoven much more now than I did in my twenties, for sure. But the late stuff, there is something about the third periods which is different.”

At the moment Schubert appears to be the one with whom he feels the strongest connection – and his last Piano Sonata, the famous B flat major work numbered as D960:

“This work means a lot to me and to many, many people,” he says. “In the late Beethoven sonatas, in Op.110 the aria speaks so personally about late thoughts, and I think that the B flat sonata in the slow movement is in that area. The sonata before has this amazing outburst in the slow movement, and where does that come from? If you just played that passage, you would never know it was Schubert! It could be Liszt, Rachmaninov, Musorgsky, but never would you think it was Schubert. And where does it come from? Woody Allen, in his film Crimes and Misdemeanors, in the murder scene, he chooses that String Quartet of Schubert with the eerie tremolos at the beginning, they are like a slap in the face. Woody Allen, who knows music upside down, chooses Schubert for moments when the centre does not hold:

Does it feel with the Schubert piano music that he is playing songs sometimes? “I wouldn’t say so. Maybe with some of the Impromptus, but I think when he writes piano sonatas it’s not just melody with accompaniment, there are more ingredients than that.” I comment how in late Schubert it feels like time has stopped sometimes. “Well the late String Quintet is a good example of that, but it is inexplicable. I mean, I love it but I have no idea what it’s all about! There is something there, where the imagination is supercharged from him. And also the lyricism, it defies analysis, you don’t know why it is so beautiful – it just is.”

Given the story of the Bartók session above, I wonder if he has any other unusual stories of recording sessions or performances? “I was doing a Prom once, where I was playing the world premiere of the Piano Concerto by Richard Rodney Bennett, and they had forgotten to lock the wheels of the piano! It was a live broadcast, and as I played the piano started to move away from me, and it went straight into the cello section! So these guys were playing cello and they saw this massive beast heading towards them. The piece begins quite quietly and there is about a ten second break just after you start, so in those ten seconds I reached into the piano, pulled it back to me.

Of course the audience laughed, and this time it didn’t move. That was quite scary! Yet even as I was bowing, the phone rang backstage and the Beeb said, “It’s the Daily Express. Did your piano start to go into the cello section?!” Unlike me I just calmly pulled the piano back. And of course the audience loved it.”

Kovacevich has conducted more recently, and enjoyed a series with the London Mozart Players at the Cadogan Hall, performing all the composer’s symphonies and piano concertos. Did it give him extra insight into the music in any way? “Not into the music, but with conducting it is different to the piano. No matter how anxious you might be you don’t have to play the notes, so when you’re on stage conducting, and you know the piece very well, you can actually concentrate on the music, to a degree more than when you are playing. So I was walking on stage and looking forward to the concert. The first time I performed the Ninth Symphony I was looking forward to it! The first time I played the Emperor Concerto I wasn’t looking forward to it!”

“I loved conducting”, he says. “I’ve conducted the Beethoven Symphonies, the Brahms, Sibelius‘ Fourth, the Tchaikovsky Pathétique. I wanted to do those pieces. I’ve lost interest, I don’t know why exactly – I think because when I am conducting I have to concentrate so much that part of my concentration is actually on playing the piano. I have done all the Beethoven concertos from the keyboard, and I find it easier to play them when I’m conducting too – I think the Emperor paradoxically is easier to play! The Fourth is harder to coordinate, as it has more flexibility, and when we performed we placed the piano in the middle of the orchestra so that the winds and I could hear each other. I loved doing those concerts at the Cadogan Hall where we did the concertos and symphonies.”

What role has music played in Stephen’s life outside of performing? “It has been a source of consolation, which is one of the things that music is for. Late Beethoven when I was younger was a source of consolation. I remember being very blue and Wagner‘s Die Meistersinger getting me out of it night after night. Also Brahms – it’s like someone consoling you.”

And does he listen to any music besides classical? “I like the ‘black jazz’ from America in the 1930s and 1940s and I love the American musicals, I think they are phenomenal. I love Gershwin, I think he’s phenomenal, and he has a lyrical gift which is fabulous, really inspiring. The fact he and Schoenberg used to play tennis in Los Angeles – can you imagine?!”

Talk turns to audiences, and more specifically how classical music could boost its own. “How often, especially in the days when I dressed in tails to go to a concert – you would get into a taxi and the driver would say what you are doing? I would say I’m playing a concert – do you ever go? “No”, would be the response. Do you enjoy it? “Yes”. Why don’t you go? I don’t know how many times but the response is “I’m embarrassed – I wouldn’t know how to behave”. I know the same thing. I would love to go more jazz, but I’m shy to go to a jazz club because I think I would not know how to behave. The feeling of sticking out – if classical music could get rid of that it would be good. It’s an uphill battle.”

Does he think classical music can portray itself as being slightly removed? “I would think only a small percentage of musicians would want to exclude anybody. This whole idea of clapping between the movements, I find it fine – but some people are horrified by it, and I think that’s ridiculous.” So is it less the musicians but more the audiences? “You could say it destroys continuity, but Mozart and Beethoven had plenty of breaks between movements. I think most musicians would welcome it. I don’t stand up when it happens but I acknowledge it with a nod of the head and a smile, for sure. When I was young I went to some Indian concerts with Ravi Shankar, and during the concert people were shouting but not loudly. I asked for the translation and they were saying, “to this there is no answer”. That is such a wonderful response to a turn of phrase!”

The Complete Philips Recordings by Stephen Kovacevich is out now as a box set – and is available to buy from the Universal music store here