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.

Steven Kovacevich at 75 – Berg and Schubert

Steven Kovacevich celebrates his upcoming 75th birthday with sonatas by Berg and Schubert at the Wigmore Hall

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Steven Kovacevich (piano) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 13 July 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b061fqzz

on the iPlayer until 12 August

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify playlist of the music in this concert. Steven Kovacevich has recorded the Schubert but it does not appear to be available on Spotify, so is included here in a leading recording by Maurizio Pollini. The Berg, which he has not recorded, is performed by Mitsuko Uchida:

What’s the music?

Berg: Piano Sonata, Op.1 (1908) (10 minutes)

Schubert: Piano Sonata in A major, published as D959 (1828) (37 minutes)

What about the music?

Steven Kovacevich describes the Berg Piano Sonata as music ‘drawn toward the distant future but still tied to the immediate past’. When he finished the first movement of what he thought would be a larger work in 1908, his teacher and mentor Schoenberg encouraged him that if he had said all he needed to say musically, there was no need to carry on. It is a landmark piece as music begins to break with conventional tonality.

While the 22-year old Berg was starting out, the 30-year old Schubert was signing off. Aware that he had not long to live, the gravely ill composer completed a trio of three massive piano sonatas, some of the biggest works ever written for the instrument and still to this day some of the most remarkable music you can hear on the piano. The second of the three in A major is a remarkable piece, contrasting passages of serenity and acceptance with sudden outbursts of temper – as in the second movement, initially slow but unable to contain itself fully. These are pieces that keep on giving in their remarkable construction and memorable melodies.

Performance verdict

The insights Steven Kovacevich has given into piano music over the last 50 years cannot be underestimated, and the sheer weight of experience he brings with him is the result of a lifetime spent performing at the very highest level.

It is this experience that shines through, especially in a reading of the Schubert sonata that is not without its problems. I would have to digress for a moment and ask if there are many 75-year olds who could play such a piece without a score, and think there are very few. Small wonder, then, that Kovacevich has what seems to be a memory lapse in the final movement, and there are a number of minor slips elsewhere. These are still very much worth persevering with because his portrayal of the unfolding drama in the Schubert is special indeed – and in the second movement in any case it is as though Schubert writes in a lot of ‘wrong’ notes.

What should I listen out for?

Berg

2:00 – one of the most intriguing beginnings to a composer’s published output is surely the quizzical opening notes of the Berg sonata, which end up in its supposed ‘home key’ of B minor, but only by asking far more questions than they answer. There is an immediate impression of a new world forming, and the harmonic outlook is constantly changing in music of great density.

The opening theme, however – the first three notes, at least – is distinctive enough to be felt in the development it receives afterwards. The music builds to a weighty climax at 7:51, then scales the heights at 10:42. Berg writes in a single paragraph, the music subsiding to the quiet, thoughtful finish.

Schubert

14:30 – the opening of the sonata is thoroughly positive, a call to arms – though Stephen Kovacevich is slightly understated in this performance. There is a serenity and intimacy that sets the tone for much of the piece.

15:57 – Schubert’s second theme, a lovely moment of introspection but also restfulness. Barely a minute later however there is a lot more audible strife, and things become fraught – until the return of this second theme at 17:41. A crunching chord at 18:07 prepares us for…

18:15 – Kovacevich repeats the movement so far (18:11) as instructed by Schubert. This helps balance the structure of the whole first movement.

23:53 – a return to the material that dominated the opening exchanges – and then, after a protracted and angst-ridden piece, the second theme and a peaceful close at 28:40.

28:54 – the slow movement begins. As with Beethoven, time seems to stand still in Schubert’s late sonatas, and his thoughts are almost of another world. The music here is very subdued but not by any means hopeless.

31:01 – the right hand seems to develop a mind of its own, becoming faster and faster. In response the music moves to distant and rather twisted harmonies – as Kovacevich notes, sounding a prophetic note towards the music of Liszt here. Feelings of anger and frustration come to the boil. The music collapses in something of a heap, exhausted at the end.

35:07 – the Scherzo, a piece of music that sounds like a feather being blown around by the wind. The detached delivery from Kovacevich’s right hand is subtly mischievous.

37:14 – the contrasting trio section begins, but is a short diversion from the main theme itself, which returns again in humour at 38:24.

39:28 – Kovacevich runs straight into the fluid finale but stops himself at 41:12. Then he picks up again at 41:26. To listen to this movement in full it is recommended to forward to…

51:16 – where after applause Kovacevich very graciously gives a re-run of the finale. Listening carefully to the full theme, there is a similarity between this and Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ theme from the Choral Symphony. It is in the main beautifully played, with a magical moment at 57:01 when we hear the theme in F sharp major, a fair way from home! At 1:01:12, however, Schubert arrives at his destination.

Further listening

A natural port of call from the Berg Piano Sonata is Schoenberg’s early piano works, which also dice with removing tonality altogether. These are the quite substantial Three Piano Pieces of 1909 and the tiny sketches that make up the Six Little Piano Pieces. Then to complement the Schubert we have the small but perfectly formed late Allegretto in C minor and three more beefy piano pieces from the last year of the composer’s life, written in a similar vein to the famous Impromptus. Here they are, all played by Maurizio Pollini and tagged on to the end of the concert playlist:

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