Pianist Stephen Kovacevich performs at the National Concert Hall, 24 September 2014
Distinguished American pianist and conductor, Stephen Kovacevich, opens the ‘Piano Masters’ series at the National Concert Hall with an impressive Brahmsian programme, bookended by a lyrical foray into the manuscripts of Bach and Schubert. With a hugely successful performing and recording career behind him, audience members of the sparsely filled auditorium, await Kovacevich’s entry with excitement. A rather frail shadow of the performer shuffles on to the platform amid enthusiastic applause. His seating position appears awkward, and too low for his height.
Without hesitation, the elegant lines of Bach’s opening overture to his fourth Partita waft across the hall, as we are drawn under Kovacevich’s spell. However, the effect is short-lived. As the performance progresses, a buzzing sound appears to emanate from the front of the room. Bewilderingly, this is soon joined by snores and snorts from the same area. At first, curious bodies search out the culprit, but it soon becomes clear that these irritating interruptions are in fact coming from Kovacevich himself. Every note is decorated with a throaty sniff, as the performer battles a horrendous case of nasal drip. Phrases are distractedly offset by the pianist’s Gouldian habit of humming along. Kovacevich’s tone in the slower sections is at times, quite beautiful, whilst his ornaments are mostly well-executed. Unfortunately, an over-reliance on the sustaining pedal creates some muddied phrasing in parts.
Possibly due to ill-health, Kovacevich decides to cram the entire Brahms repertoire into the first half of the concert. His technical interpretation of these works is a far cry from those of his 1995 recording with Philips. With unusual tempo choices, and bungled right-hand runs, the result is quite disappointing. Glimmers of the pianist of old emerge in the dark passages of the Ballades, but the intermezzi are stripped of their haunting beauty by rushed sections, smudged notes, and abrupt left-hand articulations. At times the melody becomes lost within the haze of harmonic progressions — a practice which Tchaikovsky disliked in much of Brahms’s music.
Following the interval, Kovacevich tackles Schubert’s piano sonata in A major. Despite retaining the same errors that dogged the first half of tonight’s performance, there are some truly captivating moments in the Andantino and final Allegretto. His depth of tone here is more diverse, and the pianist appears generally more focused. Kovacevich’s playing assumes a more vigorous quality in the opening and closing movements, with some precisely crafted scalic runs and well-balanced crossing of hands.
Irrespective of the quality of the performance tonight, it was a privilege to hear Kovacevich play. This was demonstrated in the audience’s heartfelt reception of the 74-year old, who took 4 curtain calls before his departure from the stage.
Bach: Partita No. 4 in D major BWV 828
Brahms: Ballade in D minor Op. 10. No. 1
Brahms: Intermezzo in A flat major Op. 76 No. 3
Brahms: Intermezzo in A minor Op. 76 No. 7
Brahms: Capriccio in D minor Op. 116, No. 7
Brahms: Ballade in B major Op. 10, No. 4
Brahms: Intermezzo in B minor Op. 119, No. 1
Schubert: Piano Sonata in A major D959