Stephen Kovacevich, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London – review

This recital was strangely hit-or-miss, often literally so. A programme of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms might be thought ideally suited to pianist Stephen Kovacevich, and much of his playing was deeply considered, but for whatever reason a stream of wrong and fumbled notes kept undermining the best of intentions throughout the evening.

The classical repertoire has been the mainstay of Kovacevich’s career. Having turned 70 in 2010 (an event he celebrated at Wigmore Hall), he has long carved a personal furrow through the German classics, more combative than Murray Perahia, less given to romantic lingerings than Daniel Barenboim – in short, a strong-willed interpreter, especially in his favoured Beethoven.

In retrospect, perhaps the signs that not all was well were there from the beginning: a portable convector heater had been unceremoniously set up next to the piano and Kovacevich regularly paused to mop his brow (was the heater turned up too high?). There was a constant feeling, at least in faster music, that the notes were slipping from his grasp, only for him to reassert his grip a moment or two later.

The programme was framed by two short pieces of Bach, the latter an encore. These were among his most successful, the opening Prelude and Fugue in C sharp minor being deeply expressive. Once into the first of his two Beethoven sonatas, the C Minor Op.10 No.1, Kovacevich hit choppier waters, as he wrestled with persistent minor finger slips. Even there, though, the slow movement plumbed depths that many pianists would find difficult to equal, and the whole of the Sonata in E major, Op.109, breathed the same deep, pensive air.

The second half comprised shorter pieces by Schubert and Brahms. A selection of Schubert’s 12 German Dances, D.790, worked nicely, moving in a subtle and shadowy world as if looking forward to Chopin’s mazurkas. The Impromptu in G flat major was over-pedalled, perhaps to cover up glitches of accuracy. In Brahms’s Rhapsody in E flat major, Op.119 No.4, he plunged in recklessly with garbled and flailing results. After that it was a relief to go out to his Bach encore and a reminder of how compelling Kovacevich can be at his best.

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