Though born in America, Stephen Kovacevich has lived in London since moving there to study with the great Dame Myra Hess at the age of eighteen. He clearly has a special rapport with British audiences, as his amiable manner in discussing his encores demonstrated. In fact, one of his “encores” was given at the start of the second half of the programme (“why do encores have to be at the end?” he joked).

Stephen Kovacevich © David Thompson / EMI Classics
Stephen Kovacevich
© David Thompson / EMI Classics

Stephen Kovacevich has a distinguished discography in which all of this concert’s composers are strongly represented, and so expectations were bound to be great. At 72, he cut a fairly agile figure on stage but seemed a little frail when seated at the keyboard. Unfortunately, a number of mannerisms made his performance a rather frustrating affair at times.

The first of these became evident in Kovacevich’s somewhat languid account of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue no. 4: a tendency to use the sustaining pedal rather liberally. These seminal keyboard works can certainly take a variety of stylistic approaches – from a crisp staccato, in imitation of the type of instrument Bach composed them for, to a smooth legato, taking advantage of the modern pianoforte that he would almost certainly have loved to play. As you might expect, the pedalling in this case resulted in much loss of clarity in this highly contrapuntal music. Kovacevich’s account was nevertheless deeply felt and intimate.

Beethoven’s early Piano Sonata no. 5 in C minor followed almost immediately and Kovacevich was clearly energised by this music. The impressively dramatic cut and thrust of the first movement was unfortunately accompanied by a rather distracting buzzing noise, which I at first thought was emanating from the instrument itself but turned out to be the pianist’s own vocalisations! Kovacevich gave a beautifully tender account of the Adagio molto movement and his sometimes hard-driven approach to Beethoven paid off in his agitated account of the concluding Prestissimo.

Beethoven’s late Piano Sonata no. 30 in E major is unconventional, to say the least. Its structure is utterly baffling to the first-time listener, particularly if they are accustomed to earlier forms of the Classical piano sonata. Firstly, there is the matter of the theme and variations finale that clocks in at almost three times the duration of the first two movements combined. Kovacevich had the measure of this final movement, the expressive heart of the piece. He seemed in total command of the gargantuan trills (muddied by that sustaining pedal again) that cap the climax before the return of the consoling main theme.

The contrasts in the brief first movement were relished, particularly the unexpected shift from Vivace harp-like arpeggios just eight bars into the piece into a noble Adagio espressivo. These two ideas are fascinatingly juxtaposed throughout the movement before the arrival of the declamatory central Scherzo in which Kovacevich did not seem to have the required power in his playing to provide its full impact.

Much like Beethoven’s late masterpiece, the programme seemed a little lopsided too. The second half of the programme seemed somewhat shorter than the first, which is perhaps why Kovacevich offered his “pre-encore” of a Schubert impromptu. His pianism was at its finest in the Schubert items, in which he played with seamless fluidity, making the composer’s magical modulations seem completely organic. The lovely Moment Musical no. 6 was played without any exaggeration and Kovacevich let the desolate minor-key ending speak for itself.

Up until the Brahms miniatures, Kovacevich’s occasional fluffed notes had not really detracted from the performances. However, the speed at which the Rhapsody was dispatched meant that few of the fistfuls of notes escaped untainted and it was hard to ignore errant notes sustained by that pedal again. The pedal was released for the quiet recapitulation in this piece and it was only then that I realised how much it had been used throughout the whole recital. The two Intermezzi and Capriccio fared better but would have again benefited from more space and less pace.

Kovacevich’s final encore was the Sarabande from Bach’s fourth keyboard partita. This was a generous addition, played with elegant simplicity, and utterly successful. This was a maddeningly uneven recital, then, and one that raised the uncomfortable question of whether a musician should continue to perform if they are physically unable to scale the great heights they have achieved in their prime.