Stephen Kovacevich, Wigmore Hall, London

The audience sang a chorus of “Happy Birthday”, but apart from that there was none of the usual celebratory business of birthday concerts, such as a cake or surprise guests. “Nobody wants to be 70,” Stephen Kovacevich told the assembled crowd, “but if you have to, this is the way to do it.”

His way was to spend the evening playing chamber music with carefully selected friends and associates, including his outstanding pianist colleague (and former partner) Martha Argerich. Together they joined in a generous programme of Brahms to Bartók, a recording of which will ultimately find its way on to the Wigmore Hall Live label as a memento of the occasion.

In his long and distinguished career – over 50 years of performances at the Wigmore alone – Kovacevich has made his name particularly in the German classics. Something from this repertoire had to be included and the choice fell on Brahms’s Piano Quintet. Kovacevich provided the deep classical foundation and the Belcea Quartet elegant playing of sensitivity and variety, combining in a performance of unusually wide range. There was almost everything here, from edge-of-the-bow mystery to almost frantic intensity, leading to a summit of high romanticism in the finale.

In the centre of the programme came Liszt’s B Minor Piano Sonata. Aficionados may have hoped this would be played by Kovacevich or even Argerich, but it was not to be. The soloist was the young Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili. Taking the sonata by the scruff of the neck, she shook complacency out of it, setting some headlong tempi and burning up the music as she went.

Then, to end, Kovacevich and Argerich came together, with a little help from Colin Currie and Sam Walton, to give a coruscating performance of Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. The Wigmore acoustic, so excellent in solo recitals, started to jangle in confusion at the force and complexity of Bartók’s percussive sonorities, but the drive of the playing was irresistible. Throughout the evening there had been exhilaration in every item, which is just as it should be on such an occasion. ()

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