STEPHEN KOVACEVICH Piano Recital
International Piano Festival Singapore
Victoria Concert Hall
4 June 2017)
This review was published in The Straits Times on 6 June 2017 with the title "Memorable recital after 31 years".
The theme “Fantasies and Memories” at this year's edition of the Singapore International Piano Festival was particularly apt when it came to summating its final recital, given by the legendary American pianist Stephen Kovacevich. Listeners of older generations will remember a dashing Stephen Bishop, who made recordings with the likes of Jacqueline du Pré and Martha Argerich.
They may also remember when Stephen Bishop Kovacevich performed a most memorable piano recital in Victoria Concert Hall at the 1986 Singapore Arts Festival. The first work in this evening's recital was to be the same, Bach's Partita No.4 in D major. It would however be a fantasy to imagine that the 31 intervening years and a more recent stroke had not taken its toll.
For Kovacevich looked every bit of his 76 years, including a gingerly gait and Gouldian (extremely low) positioning of the piano stool so as to be as near the keyboard as possible. His short preambles before each piece were also barely audible. But when he opened with the Partita's Prelude, a rejuvenation of sorts took place, yielding some of the most lucid and sublime Bach-playing thought possible.
The aria-like Allemande and slow Sarabande were beautifully voiced, while the faster dance steps in the Courante and Menuet kicked on with life. This was capped by a most fluent fugal finale in the Gigue where his mercurial fingers never seemed to tire.
Things were less certain in Schubert's Sonata in A major (D.959), where there was a tendency to rush, slurring phrases, and smudging textures through an over-liberal use of the sustaining pedal. His incessant wheezing, intakes and outtakes of breath were distracting at first, but soon became part of the auditory landscape.
Admirable still were his scaling of the work's peaks and troughs, such as the 2nd movement's stormy central interlude (some of Schubert's most violent music), the dogged maintenance of pulse and forward motion through to its lyrical end.
Four short Brahms pieces also showed variable form, frustrating so. The Ballade (Op.10 No.4) was taken too fast to make any sense of, but there was requisite passion and mincing delicacy for the Capriccio (Op.116 No.7) and Intermezzo (Op.76 No.3). The gentle dissonances of Intermezzo (Op.119 No.1) were to be a mirror for the first but that impression had been earlier lost in transit.
The final work was Beethoven's penultimate Sonata in A flat major (Op.110). There was again much beauty in his shaping of voices, notably in the opening movement and moodily introspective Adagio. By now, one would not have expected complete accuracy in the 2nd movement's country dance or the finale's fugue and inverted fugue, which had their hairy moments.
Survive he did, and the appreciative applause brought out a sublime encore in the A flat major Musical Moment by Schubert. That piece of symmetry would yet be another abiding memory of a great artist.