Wednesday 17 January 2018

Review: Stephen Kovacevich in the National Concert Hall

Stephen Kovacevich
Stephen Kovacevich

Pat O'Kelly

Los Angeles-born pianist Stephen Kovacevich returns to Ireland this week to launch the National Concert Hall’s own International Recital Series with music by Bach, Brahms and Schubert.

He opens with Bach’s 4th Partita, written in Leipzig at a time when music of the Lutheran Church dominated his life. Maybe the Partita’s slower dance movements reflect a liturgical gravity but otherwise there is little sense of ecclesiastical reserve.

Kovacevich brings a buoyant air of clarity to the Overture and, indeed, precise articulation is one of the hallmarks of his interpretation throughout the Partita’s seven contrasting sections.

The Allemande progresses gracefully with an inherently stylish momentum and, although the ensuing Courante sounds moderately rushed, it still skips with a lively gait.

The Sarabande creates an air of courtly refinement where one may be watching some elegant ball with periwigged couples casting amorous glances in each other’s direction. The final Gigue is a little too fast but Kovacevich still retains control and makes Bach’s harpsichord music sound perfectly at ease on the piano.

Kovacevich’s choice of Brahms covers almost the entire span of the composer’s career. There are two early Ballades, two middle period Intermezzi and two pieces from his final years.

Kovacevich’s playing is often beautifully understated and even in the turbulent Op 116/7 D minor Capriccio and soulful Op 119/1 B minor Intermezzo everything is handsomely shaped and phrased.

Kovacevich pinpoints the Schumann connection in the rippling cascades of the 4th Ballade with its lowing momentum also having a touch of Chopin. The 1st Ballade, the only one of Brahms’ four to have any kind of narrative, finds Kovacevich conveying its drama with positive force.

Schubert’s lengthy penultimate A major Sonata occupies the recital’s second half. Kovacevich presents the work as a natural progression from Mozart and Beethoven. At times his playing suggests an unsettled feeling but then the suffering Schubert was also disturbed

Certainly there is anguish in the music, something Kovacevich’s demonic fortes show in the slow movement. Even the Scherzo gives the impression of an ill-at-ease composer with the recitalist no less rightly anxious.

The final Allegretto brings little resolution. Kovacevich shapes Schubert’s melodic lines effectively but agitation lurks beneath the surface.

Irish Independent

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