Lynn René Bayley
, January 2011
I’ve liked Stephen Kovacevich since way back in the mid 1960s, when his last name was Bishop, and even later when he hyphenated it as Bishop-Kovacevich. His playing, then, was a breath of fresh air in an era when several pianistic “personalities” imposed their sometimes bizarre sense of phrasing and dynamics on the music, and he remains clear and lucid today, yet I have to say that 30 years of listening to Bach specialists on piano such as Glenn Gould, Vladimir Feltsman, and Gianluca Luisi have rather spoiled me in listening to Kovacevich’s performance of the Partita No. 4. It’s good, no question about it, but it lacks sparkle and a singing quality.
Fortunately, there’s more to his recital than this, and the happy news is that it includes the music of Schumann and Beethoven, with which he is much more at home. If this version of Kinderszenen lacks the aural magic of Clara Haskil’s performances, he’s certainly not alone, yet I still find his interpretation interesting in its firm insistence on structural clarity and continuity of musical thought. The swagger of “Kuriose Geschichte” and “Hasche-Mann” must be heard to be fully appreciated—words cannot do them justice—and his “Träumerei” has a unique quality of its own. Perhaps one should be reminded that Kovacevich never was a pianist who indulged in misty-eyed ascetic dreaminess, which is one reason I enjoy him. He always plays with feeling, but never with sentimental mawkishness.
Having been bowled over by Vladimir Ashkenazy’s recording of the Diabelli Variations, I wasn’t sure what to expect of Kovacevich’s performance, having not really kept up with him through the years. Oddly, his Beethoven style hasn’t changed much; it’s still powerful, rhythmically lively, well-bound in phrasing, and joyful to hear, yet in contrast to Ashkenazy he’s not having nearly as much fun with these variations as I’d hoped he would. If you’ve not heard Ashkenazy (or Schnabel), however, you’ll not be disappointed. It’s a fine reading.
Unlike many pianists, who either put on an act or look as if they’re faking playing the piano while someone else actually makes music, Kovacevich is interesting to watch. His face is in constant motion, thinking ahead and singing the music to himself, and his hands almost seem to have a life of their own. They are not “still,” as is so often preached by instructors, nor are his fingers flat. His fingers are curved, he lifts his hands and brings them back down like a very graceful cat pouncing on the keyboard. Sometimes he plays deep in the keys, sometimes on their very edge, and he is thoroughly involved emotionally. I’ll keep this DVD because I like Kovacevich’s straight-ahead interpretations, but I’m not sure everyone will appreciate what he does as much as I do.