Brave showing: Stephen Kovacevich at the Seed

By John Shakespeare Dyson | April 14, 2019

The American pianist Stephen Kovacevich gave the seventh in the series of Istanbul Recitals at The Seed in Emirgan on April 12. Seven may be a lucky number for some, but not, unfortunately, for Mr Kovacevich (the first ‘c’ in his name is pronounced as an ‘s’, by the way, not as a ‘ch’). He had a dreadful cold. Something was wrong with his right eye, and he had to keep dabbing it. And, to cap it all, he had a terrifying cough that occasionally erupted from the depths of his diaphragm and could be seen shaking his entire body as it worked its way up to his throat. All credit to him for making it to the end of the recital – he was obviously experiencing severe discomfort.

It was definitely not his day, though it was, apparently, his birthday – or near it. (Online sources give his date of birth variously as October 17 and December 17. However, as people were wishing him ‘Happy Birthday’ after the concert, I assume that he is in fact an Aries born in the second week of April.) So apart from expressing appreciation for the dogged professionalism Mr Kovacevich showed in coming back to the piano stool time after time when he really needed to be climbing the stairs to Bedfordshire (as my granny used to say), I will say nothing of the performance, but concentrate instead on the works he played.

The first item was Bach’s Partita No 4 in D major, composed in the late 1720s. Here is a critique by Robert Cummings from the ‘AllMusic’ website.

The following performance (divided into two parts) is by the inimitable Glenn Gould, who plays it with his customary vocal accompaniment. The Allemande, with its lovely opening, comes at 04:57 in the first video:


An aside: did you know that Glenn Gould presented music programmes on TV? In the following video, he is presenting and playing Scriabin – exceptionally well, in fact. I find the way he times the rests and pauses in the first piece particularly impressive:

The second item on Stephen Kovacevich’s programme was Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 31 in A flat major, the central one of the last three sonatas (and definitely my favourite). This work is a psychological journey peppered with flyings-off at a tangent and bipolar ups and downs, ending with a massively reassuring fugue. Here are two YouTube videos of performances. First, a rendition by Daniel Barenboim that brings out all the drama of the gorgeous build-up that starts at 05:06 and progresses by means of first-inversion chords (was the realisation of this possibility another Beethoven first, I wonder?) to the climax at 05:35:

And now a quieter, gentler and more relaxed version by Vladimir Ashkenazy. This performance has the score. However, I advise you to ignore the notes that appear below it on YouTube, which describe the work’s general mood as ‘sunny’ (has this person ever listened to the dark third movement, I wonder?), and the jerky, brutal second movement as ‘humorous’. The score lets you see just how far Beethoven departed from tradition in this sonata. There is, for instance, the weird downward modulation that starts at 04:10, just before the change from E major to A flat major, and the repeated G major chords that begin crashing to a crescendo at 17:37:

A note on pedalling: compare the way the two pianists handle the pedalling of the suspended chord at the end of the first movement. This happens at 07:09 in the Barenboim version, and at 06:21 in the Ashkenazy. Barenboim is more adventurous in the way he lets the discords resonate.

The second half of the recital on April 12 was devoted to Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B flat, D960. When he wrote it, poor old Franz was dying of meningovascular syphilis (the Chiron-Mars opposition in his birth chart is not an indication of good sexual health), and the Grim Reaper took him less than two months after he had finished it. Here is a critique of the work from the ‘FranzPeterSchubert’ website, which also has several pages of detailed biography and is worth exploring.

And now, Michael Jameson’s comments on the ‘AllMusic’ website.

The second movement, in C sharp minor (this starts at 19:58 in the video below), seems to have been written as film music before films were invented – but what kind of film should it accompany? I leave the choice of background visuals to you. Here is a performance by none other than Stephen Kovacevich. I love the unhurried, even naïf, way he plays the first movement, and his light touch in the arpeggio passages. All credit to him, too, for having had the courage to do the repeat that makes this movement a very long one indeed. The notes below the video – available on YouTube – make sensible comments as they take you through the work:

And so I will conclude by wishing the wonderful Mr Kovacevich, the man who coaxes such a superb tone out of the piano in the slow movements of Beethoven concertos, a speedy recovery – ‘Geçmiş olsun!’ (May it be part of the past!), as we say in Turkish. He told me his next public appearance would be in exotic Manchester, my home town, and I sincerely hope that by then he will be restored to health and vitality.

Next in the Istanbul Recital series at the Sakıp Sabancı Museums Seed theatre is the Korean pianist Yeol Eum Son, May 11, 2019. Tickets from biletix. See John Shakespeare Dysons preview.

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