The thought of acclaimed American pianist Stephen Kovacevich playing Bach, Brahms and Schubert had all the comforting quality which the idea of a gin and tonic by the fireside might inspire in me. A delightful combination, one would think. It was therefore somewhat of a surprise that this concert left me flat. 

Stephen Kovacevich © David Thompson / EMI Classica
Stephen Kovacevich
© David Thompson / EMI Classica
There were several changes to the announced programme. Originally billed to start with the Berg Piano sonata no. 1 this was shifted in favour of Bach's Partita no. 4 in D major. The motley collection of Brahms had been programmed over the two halves, but Kovacevich quite rightly decided to play them all in the first half, apparently on a spur of the moment decision. "I might as well play the other two Brahms pieces now", he declared, as the interval loomed large. The great Sonata in A major D959 by Schubert which comes in at under 40 minutes was a fitting second half and conclusion to the concert. 

As Kovacevich entered on stage, I was struck by two things: his general movements (bowing, walking) were marked by a certain stiffness: and secondly, his stool was so low that he seemed to be reaching up to the keyboard. Neither of which mattered in the slightest to the music. However, what did mar his performance at different stages was the blurred pedalling, the fluffed notes and the distracting sounds emanating from the maestro himself.

The dramatic opening of Bach's Partita no. 4 was played with the minimum of fuss and what the complex fugal lines of the second half of the ouverture lacked in crispness and clarity, the poetic shaping of the different strands of melody in the Allemande more than made up for it. I was much impressed by the still, almost pruned style of Kovacevich. The spirit of the Courante and the final Gigue was well captured, with sprightly off-beat accents in the former and an energetic counterpoint in the latter. It was towards the end of the Partita that an irritating buzzing sound intruded upon the music. At first, I thought a pencil had been left carelessly across the strings of the piano, but it turned out to be emanating from Kovacevich himself. Certain pianists are famed for their own vocalisations when playing (Glenn Gould for example) and while one might live with humming, clacking noises are a distraction too far.

Introspection was the theme which bound together the choice of Brahms' Intermezzi, Capriccio and Ballades. Kovacevich instantly captured the mood of dark brooding in both Ballade no. 10 and Intermezzo in A minor op. 76, though in the stormier middle section of the Ballade there was a distinct absence of power and dramatic tension which the music calls out for. Tonally too, Kovacevich seemed to skim the surface instead of eliciting the necessary full-bodied Brahmsian sound from the piano. It was in the Intermezzo in A flat op. 76  and the Ballade no. 4 in B major where the pedalling was frustratingly unpredictable, blurring the glorious harmonies particularly over some of the more daring modulations. It was in the meditative and deeply introspective Intermezzo no. 1 op. 119 that Kovacevich was at his best, as he unfurled the opening melody with great poetry, each note laden with reflective insight. The build-up to the climax was all the more effective for staying within the quiet range of the piece. 

Energised by the interval, Kovacevich attacked the opening Allegro of Schubert's Sonata in A major D. 959 with all required vigour; and while some of the left hand triplets were not quite even, the general fieriness and trajectory of the music of this movement was well delineated. The second movement Andantino featured some exquisitely crafted phrases with fine gradations of piano/pianissimo. The shocking, abrupt key changes (from C minor to C- sharp minor, E minor to F minor) and the rapid scale passages which ensue were disappointingly blurred by the sustaining pedal. Both the Allegro vivace and the Allegretto were much more successfully handled. The third movement was characterised by a mercurial touch and laced with plenty of self-deprecatory humour, particularly in the delicately repeated notes. Music and musician found the most satisfying balance in the final lyrical movement, and a few fluffs could not prevent the melody exultantly singing out its glorious line.