In the pantheon of piano gods of my youth, Stephen Kovacevich and Martha Argerich take their place alongside the likes of Daniel Barenboim, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Radu Lupu. A packed audience congregated in Wigmore Hall’s temple to pay homage at a very special concert in which Argerich joined Kovacevich to mark his 75th birthday. Our gods can be fierce and fearless. They can also be flawed. The challenging programme – the final works of Debussy, Rachmaninov and Schubert – certainly wasn’t flawless in execution, yet the imperfections somehow made them more real, more human. The results were both exhilarating and moving.

Artistically and temperamentally, Argerich and Kovacevich are black and white, chalk and cheese. She is steely and tempestuous, he is classically compact and elegant. There is remarkably little crossover in their repertoires. The two-piano first half featured Debussy’s En blanc et noir (which they recorded together in 1977) and Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances – an Argerich favourite but a work Kovacevich was performing for the first time. The contrasts between the two were fascinating. Kovacevich seemed overawed, even timid, at first, possibly exaggerated by his very low position at the keyboard. Musically, there was no doubt who was wearing the trousers: Argerich took control, directing proceedings with a firm flourish of her right hand, a determined nod, an inquisitive glance. There was even a flashing glare at one point, urging the page-turner (fellow Argentinian pianist Alberto Portugheis, no less) aside so she had a clear view of her partner.

The first movement of En blanc et noir cascaded triplets, not always in unison, while in the sombre middle movement, Argerich struck beautiful bell-like tones in the upper octaves. Her palette of colours and extreme dynamics was astounding, especially the inky bass growls in the Non allegro opening to the Symphonic Dances, threatening Wigmore Hall’s very foundations. The transition from C minor to C sharp minor which followed, with teasing lines winding around each other, was poetic, leading to the famous first movement theme, which Rachmaninov originally scored for saxophone in the work’s orchestral garb.

Argerich, playing Piano 2 in the Rachmaninov (as opposed to Piano 1 in the Debussy), set the rhythmic pulse for the second movement. The halting hesitations in this devil’s waltz weren’t always given their full rein, but both pianists built tension impressively so that the dance threatened to implode, just like Ravel’s La valse. More tintinnabulation tickled the ears in the third dance, rich in Dies irae quotes and swirling with impetuosity. One sensed Kovacevich clinging to Argerich’s coattails at times, but it made for a thrilling, rip-snorting ride.

After the interval, there was no Argerich, no page-turner, no score. Kovacevich was on his own, back on familiar territory with Schubert’s Sonata in B flat major D960. Apart from an indistinct trill, which intrudes after the lyrical opening phrases, Kovacevich impressed, allowing the long first movement (shorn of its exposition repeat) to unfold naturally, with touching fragility. The Andante sostenuto featured the lightest of cross-hand chimes, laden with melancholy. Unfortunately, slips in the Scherzo meant that the music didn’t flow and bubble as intended and the finale wasn’t ideally secure either, although the bold fortissimos which interrupt the flow were crisply attacked.

Keen to dampen the adulation, Kovacevich beckoned Alina Ibragimova from the stalls to join him for an encore, a transcription for violin and piano of Rachmaninov’s dreamy Vocalise. Ibragimova’s warm vibrato lent richness to the melodic line, Kovacevich content to play second fiddle at the keyboard. What a gentleman. 


Read our interview with Stephen Kovacevich here