Stephen Kovacevich first studied with Lev Schoor who had been a student of Annette Essipov. At the age of eleven Kovacevich made his debut in San Francisco playing the Piano Concertino by Jean Françaix and in the same year gave his first solo recital. While still in his early teens he played Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major and Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 54 with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. At the age of eighteen Kovacevich went to London in order to study with Myra Hess who shared his love of the Classics: Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert and Mozart. These composers have been central to Kovacevich’s musical life, particularly Beethoven. He made his London debut at the Wigmore Hall playing Berg’s Piano Sonata Op. 1, three preludes and fugues from the first book of Bach’s Das wohtemperierte Klavier and Beethoven’s ‘Diabelli’ Variations Op. 120. A critic ended his review, ‘Mr Bishop may make a remarkable Beethoven pianist.’ He gave three Wigmore Hall recitals in under a year, and repeated his highly praised performance of the ‘Diabelli’ Variations at the Royal Festival Hall in London in April 1966 where his interpretation was ‘…as impressive for its fiery strength and turbulence as for its rarefied visionary beauty’. Kovacevich has taken part in many music festivals including those at Edinburgh, Bath, Harrogate, Berlin and Salzburg. He has also made fourteen appearances at the Proms in London.
Although Kovacevich has maintained a career specialising in Beethoven and Schubert, he also plays music by Bach, Mozart, Schumann, Chopin, Brahms, Grieg and Bartók. He commissioned a solo piano work, Southern Lament, from his friend (and tennis partner) American composer Stephen Montague, and performed it at the 1997 Cheltenham Festival and the Proms in London. Although known for his Beethoven and Schubert, Kovacevich has stated that he would like to record the complete Chopin mazurkas, nocturnes and B flat minor Piano Sonata Op. 35. He also plays all the works for piano and orchestra by Rachmaninov (he was reported to be preparing the Concerto No. 3 in June 1985) but as yet has not performed them publicly. Kovacevich has played chamber music with cellists Jacqueline du Pré and Lynn Harrell, violinist Kyung-Wha Chung and clarinettist Michael Collins; and accompanied singers Barbara Hendricks and Cecilia Bartoli. Kovacevich still tours the world, in one recent season playing in Israel, Greece, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Korea and Japan. He also teaches, mainly at summer schools in Aspen, Darlington and Vervier.
During his career Kovacevich has had a number of name changes. His father was Croatian, but his mother remarried when Stephen was twelve, giving him the new family name of Bishop. At one time he decided to use both names, hence Bishop-Kovacevich, but later dropped the Bishop. Refreshingly outspoken, Kovacevich is not afraid to say what music he likes and does not like. He has described Mozart’s piano sonatas, with a few exceptions, as ‘…an obvious case of music appreciated at far above its worth’, whilst of Haydn’s music he has said, ‘I’m not indifferent to Haydn, I loathe him.’ Kovacevich also admits listening to (and enjoying) recordings, particularly those by Rachmaninov, Schnabel, Serkin (up to the 1960s) and Horowitz, of whom he said, ‘When I was a kid the Horowitz sound was my ideal.’ Kovacevich’s first recordings were made for HMV: an LP of Beethoven sonatas and another including Chopin’s Barcarolle Op. 60, Ballade in F minor Op. 52 and Impromptu Op. 29. He also made a fine disc of some of Beethoven’s cello sonatas with Jacqueline du Pré. In the past Kovacevich described his 1968 Philips recording of Beethoven’s ‘Diabelli’Variations Op. 120 as ‘…uninteresting at so many key points’. Few would agree with him as many of the qualities experienced in the concert hall were apparently captured in the studio version. His concerto recordings with Sir Colin Davis are also highly praised discs, particularly the coupling of the concertos by Schumann and Grieg from the early 1970s, and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major K. 503. Also with Davis, Kovacevich recorded Bartók’s piano concertos, No. 2 being particularly impressive and winning an Edison Award. With the Australian Chamber Orchestra Kovacevich recorded the complete piano concertos by Beethoven, also directing the performances from the keyboard. The EMI recordings of Brahms’s piano concertos from the early 1990s with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Wolfgang Sawallish received extremely high praise and an award from The Gramophone magazine which described the first concerto as ‘altogether exceptional’. During the 1970s Kovacevich recorded many of Beethoven’s piano sonatas for Philips and between 1992 and 2003 recorded the sonatas complete for EMI. The ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata Op. 106 he often spoke of in interviews, and when he finally made the recording in 2003 it was certainly worth waiting for. It is strong, virile and rugged but with an acute understanding of the structure, which he projects with absolute clarity. For EMI he has also recorded the last two sonatas of Schubert and the six Moments Musicaux D. 780. Kovacevich’s recording of Chopin’s Nocturnes Op. 62 is also particularly good for its rich singing line, poise and understanding of style.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).