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International Record Review, December 2010

Stephen Kovacevich recorded both concertos with Colin Davis and the LSO in 1979. The first movement of the D minor shows Kovacevich and Davis to be masters of flexible tempo, and the dramatic climaxes are most exciting, while poetry and repose are captured equally well. There’s a young man’s energy here (impetuousness, even) that is just right for this piece, written when Brahms was in his early twenties. The slow movement has infinite sadness and in the very stirring finale Kovacevich is unafraid to take risks—with thrilling results—while there’s never any shortage of warmth either. The first movement of the B flat Concerto is ardent but relaxed, the scherzo light on its feet, and the slow movement notable for the tranquility and poise of Kovacevich’s playing, abetted by a wonderful (unnamed) cellist. The finale is sparkling and sunny but also muscular. Davis is a splendid accomplice throughout these performances. The set also includes the Scherzo, Op. 4, Balldes, Op. 10 and Klavierstücke, Op. 76, all recorded in 1983. Kovacevich’s remake of the concertos with Sawallisch (EMI) is very fine, but there’s a rare spontaneity about these earlier discs, and his partnership with Davis, which produces memorable results.

Gramophone, November 2010

A hearty welcome to Newton Classics, a classy new label masterminded by the ex-EMI executive Theo Lapp. To judge by their first batch of reissues, they should be an imprint to watch. This Brahms from Stephen Kovacevich is one of his finest recordings and a timely reminder that he is still sometimes underappreciated.

There is a poetry to his playing, a specificity to the imagery, that speaks of a great and clearly defined pianistic vision. In this the London Symphony Orchestra under Colin Davis are inspired accomplices. Yes Kovacevich, knows when to ratchet up the excitement when required.

Paul L Althouse
American Record Guide, November 2010

Coupled with the concertos is a generous sampling of early and middle period piano works. Kovacevich’s range of touch and color, particularly in Op. 76, is extraordinary. He brings out inner voices with great beauty and fine proportion, so everything sounds very natural.

A pleasure from start to finish!

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Jessica Duchen
BBC Music Magazine, October 2010

Kovacevich is on fire in these recordings. Visceral, inspired, spiritual and sensual, his Brahms balances on the edge, yet reaches profound repose for slow movements.

Bryce Morrison
Gramophone, October 2010

A welcome turn for classic Brahms concerto performances

This superb two-disc reissue is a timely reminder—if such a reminder was necessary—of Stephen Kovacevich’s stature as one of the great musicians of our time. His Brahms concertos with Colin Davis (recorded in 1979) have always stood the test of time and once more take their place among the finest recordings. In the First Concerto others may burn with an even whiter heat (Kapell) or play with greater breadth and grandeur (Gilels). But Kovacevich’s poise at the close of the Adagio, like some glorious sunset slowly sinking into oblivion, is unforgettable and his blistering pace in the finale is characteristically trenchant and exhilarating.

In the Second Concerto you are made to feel a sense of romantic turbulence beneath its towering spans and arches, and every formidable demand is met with unflagging brio and a fierce musical commitment. The finale, too, in such hands becomes a “glory of tumbling gaiety” (Edward Sackville-West) and both here and in the solo items the playing is as characterful as it is honest, quite without the frills and distortions with which lesser pianists seeks to impress their listeners. True, others are gentler and more giving in the more autumnal pages of Op 76 and the Four Ballades but the E flat minor Scherzo benefits immeasurably from a fierce propulsion that reminds you that its inspiration may well have been Chopin’s Third Scherzo. Sound and balance are admirable and I hope Newton Classics will issue many more Kovacevich’s early discs.

Robert Cummings
Classical Net, September 2010

These are reissues: the concertos were recorded in 1979, Opp. 4 and 10 in 1983 and Op. 76 in, I believe, 1985, though the accompanying material doesn’t list a date for that set. They were all originally released by Philips, and for that same label Kovacevich, then known as Stephen Bishop (he would later attach his mother’s surname to Bishop, and then eventually drop Bishop altogether), and Colin Davis also collaborated in the three Bartók and five Beethoven concertos, as well as in concertos by Mozart and Stravinsky. So as a team the two apparently worked well together: their Bartok and Stravinsky were very good, but I cannot speak for their Beethoven or Mozart, since I never acquired those discs.

The sound is excellent in all works on these Newton Classics reissues. How are the performances? Kovacevich is a fiery pianist, an artist with a powerful technique and a tendency toward brisk tempos. Davis can be laid back, but he generally draws muscular and fairly straightforward performances from the orchestras he conducts. Here, the two produce a brilliant collaboration in these challenging works. Kovacevich delivers moderate to briskly-paced readings of both concertos, capturing the youthful darkness of the First Concerto and epic grandeur of the Second in full measure. Davis seconds his approach and manages to draw brilliant playing from the London Symphony.

The Brahms Second has always posed a problem of sorts for the pianist: the common wisdom on the work has been that it’s not really a concerto, but a symphony with piano obbligato. Well, of course, that’s an exaggeration, but the piano is rather secondary in the first and third movements. Kovacevich plays the cadenza near the beginning of the opening panel powerfully and majestically, but he’s not single-minded in his approach, as he catches the tortured character of the main theme variant moments later with a subtle sense of intimacy that grows to glorious agitation. Kovacevich plays convincingly throughout, and I would rank his spirited Second a marginally better performance than his First. Rubinstein and Serkin/Szell have been my preference in the First, while Serkin/Szell, Cliburn, Richter and Jando have held sway in the Second. Kovacevich can probably stand in the company with these—his performances are that good. I should note that the other Brahms Second I reviewed this year—the Joaquin Achucarro on an Opus Arte DVD, which coincidentally also had Davis as conductor—was less impressive than this Kovacevich effort.

In the solo pieces Kovacevich is equally convincing. He has been a consistently masterly interpreter of Brahms’ solo piano music throughout his career. He also recorded the Opp. 116, 117 and 119 pieces for Philips in 1983. It is an excellent collection that may still be available in the Philips Digital Classics series. In any event, this Newton Classics double-CD set is highly recommended., August 2010

There was a time in the dim, dark past—that is, about 30 years ago—when digital recordings did not yet exist or were barely in their infancy, but musicians were nevertheless making extraordinary music that was captured with the best available technology of the time. As “DDD” recording progressed (and many listeners have forgotten or never knew that much of it was pretty awful in its first years), older performances fell by the wayside as the technical quality of recording came to supersede the musical quality that had been preeminent just a few years earlier. This is not intended as a harsh judgment—eventually, many all-digital recordings rose to great heights. But what ever happened to the fine recorded music of the late analog and very early digital era? The answer is that it is still out there, and the Newton Classics label is doing classical-music lovers a huge favor by releasing a wide variety of recordings that have stood, and deserve to stand, the test of time. Even listeners who already own the music recorded here—and most will—may very well want to add at least some of these Newton Classics recordings to their libraries.

The Brahms two-CD release is a perfect case in point. Stephen Kovacevich (born 1940) is perhaps better known as Stephen Bishop—he has performed under both names, and also sometimes as Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich. He was in splendid form in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when these recordings were made (the piano concertos are analog recordings from 1979; the other recordings are digital originals from 1983). These performances have plenty of style, but beyond that, they have a sense of scale: these are really big versions of the Brahms concertos, sounding more like symphonies with piano obbligato (as the First, in particular, was accused of being) than like virtuoso display pieces. Yet there is virtuosity aplenty here: Kovacevich offers technically splendid readings in which the piano fully holds its own against the very considerable orchestral forces arrayed under Sir Colin Davis. The London Symphony was not quite at the pinnacle of its powers at this time, but it was a very fine if not quite preeminent orchestra, and Davis—already in his 50s when these recordings were made—was fully in command of the music and musicians. These are exemplary readings of the concertos, filled with subtlety as well as power. And the solo piano works are equally impressive: Kovacevich has a sure sense of when to make things weighty and when to lighten up a bit, and his Brahms combines real flow with internal consistency and a strong sense of rhythm and style., July 2010

These Philips originals come up very well to re-present Stephen Kovacevich’s searching and muscular performances of the concertos—intensely and dedicatedly conducted by Colin Davis. The slow movement of the D minor Concerto is particularly profound; and the B flat work is spacious, heroic and tender. The works for solo piano are played with astuteness, poetry and fire. Highly recommended.

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3:16:33 PM, 27 April 2015
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