With this release Stephen Kovacevich's survey of the 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas
reaches 25 recorded and released, with only seven more to go (Nos. 1, 2,
3, 13, 14, 26 & 29). He is certainly taking his time over the task which
would appear at first sight to be laudable, but perhaps this very approach
gives a clue as to why these performances ultimately fail to convince.
Kovacevich's technique is never in question, but one is made aware throughout
the CD that the extended thought process, which he doubtless undertook before
entering the studio, actually led to the performances becoming somewhat mannered
and un-spontaneous. It's as if the playing is not only conveying the notes
but also, at the same time, saying to the listener - 'listen to this turn
of phrase, listen to this clever rubato'.
The best performance on the disc is the extraordinary Sonata No. 4 Op 7 in
which Kovacevich is at his least interventionary. The symphonic scale and
style of thisfour movement work allows less opportunity to indulge in rubato,
which here is all to the good. Tempi are well judged and the second movement
Largo has real gravitas, 'con gran espressione' as requested by the
composer. The Allegro's conversational style is not compromised by
too fast a tempo nor, indeed, is that of the Rondo finale where Beethoven
requires a 'Poco allegretto e grazione', an instruction often missed
by other pianists who tear the heart out of the music with tempos well in
excess of Kovacevich's.
Sonata No. 22 Op 54 is also quite well achieved, although here Kovacevich's
tendency to indulge in slight distortions of rhythm and sudden 'brakes-on'
rubato begins to show itself. Small 'finger slips' occur with rather too
great a regularity and they surely deserved re-takes.
The wonderful 'little' Sonata No. 25 Op. 79 adds to the disappointment. The
first movement marked 'Presto alla tedesca' is played far too slowly
and the remainder of the sonata never really recovers. The third movement
- one of Beethoven's wittiest creations - sounds altogether too serious.
Andor Foldes' fine performance on DG (long deleted) surely deserves a reissue.
For many, of course, it will be the 'Appassionata' Sonata which will
be of the greatest interest. The sheer technique displayed in the performance
of the great first movement cannot be denied and the result has a certain
visceral excitement which will appeal to many listeners. But, musically,
the feeling of being swept away by the drama is lacking, cloaked, as it is,
by an overly thoughtful approach. Kovacevich is very careful to follow the
exact letter of the score, but even here he tends to signal his 'correctness'
too much (for example, the required breaks in the phrasing at 4'.49" - 4'.53"
is surely signposted too obviously).
The slow movement flows well but it's altogether too controlled. For comparison,
in the finale 'Allegro ma non troppo - Presto', I turned to two key
performances from competing cycles: Alfred Brendel and Richard Goode. Although
very different from each other, both pianists provided that feeling of deep
understanding of the music without sacrificing the 'hell for leather' approach
which this music clearly calls for and which largely eludes Kovacevich
(particularly at 7'.12" onwards). Goode in particular (with rather smoother
if obviously older recorded sound) gives the kind of overall experience which
confirms the sheer greatness of this music.
Kovacevich's many fans will snap up this CD, I'm sure. But a final word of
warning, the recorded sound, whilst very wide in dynamic, is rather clangourous
and Kovacevich sings along to his playing all too clearly.