Kovacevich reveals variety and eccentricity at Symphony Center

Tue Mar 02, 2010 at 6:45 am

By Dennis Polkow

Stephen Kovacevich performed a recital Sunday at Symphony Center.

There is always a sense of occasion that accompanies any appearance by Stephen Kovacevich, and Sunday afternoon’s Symphony Center recital was no exception.  From the outset of his career some half a century ago as young prodigy Stephen Bishop, it was clear both in his recordings and recitals that this was no ordinary pianist.

Technique has always been at the service of Kovacevich’s interpretations, and even now as an elder statesman of the instrument, that remains largely the case.  What continues to make Kovacevich such an engaging performer is that one never quite knows where his interpretations will take him — or us, for that matter — making any musical journey made with him one of surprise and discovery.

How many pianists would consider taking up playing Bach publicly so late in their careers — and not some Busoni transcription that could be over-pedaled to conceal the transparency of the music — but a full-fledged seven-movement Partita (No. 4, BWV 828), played as written?

Kovacevich plays Bach vertically, not horizontally, and rarely allows Bach’s rhythms to swing the way that they need to.  Anyone attempting to dance to what Kovacevich was playing would be confused with so many starts and stops and such unusual use of rubato, yet the range of color displayed across the suite was nonetheless astonishing.

Typical of the kind of eccentricities that Kovacevich can display in recital was that a stagehand appeared after the Bach and began awkwardly attempting to place a board underneath the pedals for Kovacevich’s feet to rest upon.  “Does anyone have a saw?” Kovacevich called out tongue in cheek in an attempt to explain the antics.  The piano itself had already been distractingly raised with boards underneath each leg as if it were a wobbling card table that needed to be leveled, but the bench apparently remained too high.  This seemed rather odd performance art, especially given that customized piano benches are easily obtainable.

Schumann’s Kinderszenen followed and was given an unusual reading where the entire suite was played virtually without pause and with little in the way of dynamic contrast.  Kovacevich played softly with a bell-like touch in an almost dreamlike haze.  This approach was a bit distracting at first, but ultimately, such an interpretation won out by seeming to suggest an adult retreating back to one’s childhood via memory late in life rather than childhood itself being conveyed as the piece is so often played.

That Kovacevich was revisiting the great Beethoven masterpiece so associated with him as a young pianist — Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations — as the second half of the afternoon made this an especially intriguing affair.  Kovacevich has never viewed this Everest as a serious climb, but as Beethoven being profoundly whimsical.

It remains jarring to hear Kovacevich toss off the vulgar theme that the Viennese music publisher wrote and offered to every significant composer of the day — even an 11-year old Franz Liszt — to compose a variation on, played so crudely, but this has always been part of Kovacevich’s strategy: to give us a DNA sample that can be followed throughout the set by the crassness of the setup that Diabelli supplied interwoven with the sublime material that Beethoven spins out of it.

Many pianists try to make “nice” music out of what Diabelli did to blend in with the high art that Beethoven made out of it, but not Kovacevich.  The theme and its many mutations are set up in a banal and aggressive manner and remain so as they weave in and out of the 33 variations like an overstuffed, self-conscious ham of a bad actor attempting to make everyday discourse sound like Shakespeare.  Beethoven takes a sow’s ear and creates a silk purse, and while many give lip service to this notion, few have chosen to reflect this in the way that the piece itself is actually performed.

If Kovacevich’s technique began to falter during Var. 28, a pregnant pause and a wipe of his brow allowed him to forge on ahead to the penultimate Fuga, which he choose to over-pedal and play at breakneck speed in an indistinct manner, setting up tension as to how — or even if — he would emerge victorious at the end.  When he did, the audience sighed in relief and gave him the courtesy of a politely restrained ovation that allowed everyone to call it a day, wisely recognizing that there was little left for Kovacevich to give.

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