GRAMOPHONE - EDITOR'S CHOICE AWARD, JANUARY 2009
Reviewer: Harriet Smith
Wilhelm von Lenz described the Diabelli Variations as "a satire on their theme". It's an apt summation, for what could be more remarkable than something an inherently mediocre as Diabelli's theme giving voice to one of the greatest - some would argue the greatest - work ever written for solo piano?
Kovacevich write in his intriduction to this new set that it was the Diabelli Variations - via the Serkin recording - that first made him love Beethoven. It's a reading that still holds its head high today, and just a decade later, in 1968, Kovacevich set down his own recording, rightly acclaimed and something of a calling-card for the young pianist. But what of this new performance, made 40 years later? Whiat is immediately striking is the sense of a cumulative whole, the tension and indeed speed with which he apprached the work. The work's juxtaposition of the sublime and the ridiculous are presented with a vividness that sounds more live than studio-bound.
It's easy to forget that the work was actually written in two distinct time-periods, the majority of it dating from 1819, with 10 more variations added in 1823, interspersed among the existing ones. It resulted in a work of a quite different - and more daring - shape from his initial thoughts. And unlike Back, Mozart or Haydn, Beethoven doesn't set up a particular style, tone or tempo that continues through an entire variation - instead there's a sense of organic development through each number. Kovacevich emphasises this sense of continuous development with a certain fleetness of finger: his opening theme sets quite a pace (speedier than Brendel's masterly live performance from 2001), and dances more lightly than many rival versions (thought its exuberance matches Brendel's in 1976). IT's certainly faster than his own earlier recording. But more important is the sense that Kovacevich has now fully encompassed the extremes of the work more fully. His understanding of Beethoven's juxtapositions of beauty and crudity, reflection and action, and the sheer dynamic range, are fully exposed in this new version, which captures the piano sound beautifully. And not only in the later variations, as these juxtapositions become more blatant, but as early as Vars 3 and 4, the thirs lamost trance-like, the fourth pushed hard towards the bar-lines to explosive effect, Kovacevich laying bare the extraordinary originality of his writing. That sense of being on the edge is a vital component of this reading. Occasionally you sense that he's chosen a tempo almost too fast, that he's a moment away from derailing (Var 23, for instance), but it never happens. Instead, it adds to the sense of "liveness" about this studio production.
Kovacevich has, in the intervening decades between his first and second Diabellis, recorded a complete sonata cycle and again that familiarity with Beethoven's language in the final years shows, from the ease with which he presents the quasi-improvisation of Var 31 and his masterly handling of inevitable fugue of Var 33, to the discomforting leaps and obtuse harmonies (Var 7), the extremes of range (Var 10), the creation of an illusion of speeding up through ever-smaller note values (Var.14) and that great Beethoven favourite - the trill - which plays an increasingly important part as the work progresses.
The humour, too, is there, but never overdone, whether in Beethoven's earthy belligerence (Var 9), the tersly snatched ending of Var 19 or the blatant reference to Mozart's Leporello in Var 22. But, again and again, Kovacevich reveals how that jumour can tip over into something far more menacing: witness the rat-a-tat-tat of the left hand in Var 17 or the pathos as Beethoven at last switches to the minor in Var 29, finally putting the brakes on a seemingly unstoppable momentum, culminating in the fugue and its catastrophic collapse (Var 33). Perhaps in his younger days Beethoven would have ended the set with the fugue, but instead we get a final addition: a switch to C major and an utter change in mood, with a graceful, quasi-Mozartian idea, whirled ever higher. It's as enigmantic and undefinable as anything Beethoven wrote and a transcendent ending to this remarkable performance.
Kovacevich might be less associated with Bach, btu let's not forget that his teacher was that consummate Bachian, Myra Hess. His approach to the Fourth Partita reminds me on another great Beethovian: Richard Goode. In this respect he treads a middle path between the tonally slimline, rhythmically motivated readings of Angela Hewitt and the more obviously romantic ones of Credic Tiberghien. And it's an enlightening partner to the Diabelli Variations, not only in its basis in dance rhythms but also in its scope and its extrovert demeanour, whose tone is set with the grand Ouverture. Kovacevich brings an easy brilliance to the lightly tripping Courante and the bold contours of the final Gigue. Nor is he afraid to make Bach his own, drawing the listener in with his sotto voce Allemande, adding ornaments and playing around with rhythms, but all is done with the utmost musicality. Altogether, a disc to treasure.
Stephen Kovacevich is one of the most searching interpreters. As a pianist he has won unsurpassed admiration for his playing of Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart and Schubert. In addition to his long and distinguished career as a soloist he has conducted for many years, winning warm praise for his work with orchestras throughout the world in repertoire from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Born in Los Angeles, Stephen Kovacevich made his concert debut as a pianist at the age of 11. When he was 18 he moved to England to study with Dame Myra Hess. His international reputation has been built both on his concert appearances, renowned for their thoughtfulness and re-creative intensity, and on the highly acclaimed recordings he has made throughout his career.
Kovacevich has enjoyed two long-term relationships with recording companies, first Philips and then EMI. His concerto recordings for Philips, including Beethoven, Schumann and Bartók, have long been staples of the catalogue. As an exclusive EMI artist, he recorded both Brahms Piano Concertos with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Sawallisch; No 1 was Grammy-nominated and won the 1993 Gramophone Award and the Stereo Review Record of the Year, while No 2 won the Diapason D'Or.
The other great projects with EMI were a compelling series of Schubert Sonatas and a set of the 32 Beethoven Sonatas completed in 2003, hailed as one of the most authoritative ever recorded. One critic described The Hammerklavier as: ‘an unflinching, sometimes combative view of a titanic masterpiece, and a version to be spoken of in the same breath as those of Brendel, Gilels and Pollini... Kovacevich announces the music’s potency from the first bar.’ His subsequent CD release of Chopin and Ravel won Choc du Monde de la Musique and Recompense Classica/Repertoire.
Kovacevich has recently recorded Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations for Onyx Classics, exactly 40 years after his first recording of the work for Philips in 1968. The CD will be coupled with Bach's Partita No. 4, Kovacevich's first Bach recording and is due for release in January 2009.
Stephen Kovacevich has appeared with orchestras worldwide. During the 2006/7 and 2007/8 seasons he performed all the Beethoven concertos and symphonies as conductor / soloist with the London Mozart Players. Highlights of this season include concerto appearances with Yannick-Nézét-Séguin and Rotterdam Philharmonic, Lawrence Foster and Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo, a Play and Direct project with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and recitals in London, Houston, Beijing and Shanghai.
Since making his conducting debut in 1984 with the Houston Symphony Orchestra, Kovacevich has conducted many of the world’s finest orchestras, including the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, London Mozart Players, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Ulster Orchestra, Gulbenkian and Vancouver Symphony Orchestras and the Tapiola Sinfonietta. After his London conducting debut with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall, the Daily Telegraph critic Geoffrey Norris wrote: ‘...he brought precision and crispness combined with a full tone and galvanising immediacy. Structure was unshakeable; these performances really made one sit up and take note.’
After an initial concentration on 18th-century music (especially Mozart), Kovacevich’s conducting repertoire has expanded to include 19th-century Romantic music, including the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and a memorable Sibelius Symphony No 4.
He is also a committed chamber musician. During the 2008/09 season he has a mini-residency of Brahms and Bartok chamber music at the Wigmore Hall. Other appearances include chamber recitals at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and the Vienna Musikveren. He has lived in London for many years.