his Beethoven Sonatas recordings on
EMI with ‘Genesis’ (the three sonatas,
Op. 2). There is much here to admire.
Clearly EMI thought so too – production
levels are of the highest, with a recording
team comprising John Fraser and Mike
Hatch, and informed booklet notes by
the noted authority Joseph Kerman. The
recording quality is simply superb,
conveying all the character of a top-notch
The F minor sonata,
whatever its fiery quirks, remains firmly
wedded to its Haydnesque models. Kovacevich
seems intent on pointing this out, his
brisk tempo and his tone seemingly imitating
a fortepiano. Consistent with this approach
are the stabbing sforzandi; a more assured
way with the prevalent turn-figures
would have clinched it (some of the
difficult left-hand ones are awkward).
A fast (‘authentic’?) speed for the
Adagio means that it helps Kovacevich
to sit on the surface of the music,
although his expressive way with chromatic
neighbour-notes is to be admired. Alas
there seems to be a caveat to each of
the middle movements – the Menuetto
is robust and goes with a swing and
he successfully invokes a four-part
string quartet texture, yet the very
opening could be more shifty. The finale
brought about an interesting phenomenon.
In my listening notes, I observed that
in the Prestissimo last movement Kovacevich
seemed to look forward to the F-minor
of the Appassionata’s finale
on the one hand, and simultaneously
look back to the quirky world of C.P.E.
Bach. Reading Kerman’s booklet notes
later, I found him invoking a similarly
Janus-like image for this Sonata, referring
to the finale of the Piano Trio Op.
1 No. 3 and forward to the finale of
the ‘Moonlight’. There is no doubting
that this is Kovacevich’s most successful
movement, however. Taken at a true Presto,
his left-hand is astonishingly nimble
and pedalling is exceptionally carefully
considered so that definition survives.
Dynamic contrasts, it has to be admitted,
could possibly have been greater, but
Kovacevich nevertheless succeeds in
bringing the sonata to a stunning close.
The A major, Op. 2
No. 2, brings a performance that just
misses the cheeky wit that is part of
early Beethoven’s persona. My affections
here lie with Backhaus on Decca (which
only seems to be currently available
in a box of the complete Sonatas, 433
882-2, although it is from the ffrr
LP that I remember it). Under Kovacevich’s
hands, scales chase each other almost
playfully, and he has an unnerving habit
of slowing and indulging at every opportunity.
Much better is the element of the processional
brought to the Largo appassionato, and
there is an appealing charm to his Scherzo.
If he may initially seems over-brutal
and brusque at this movement’s close,
it soon becomes apparent this is to
contrast with the suave arpeggio that
opens the finale.
There seems very little
gap between the second and third sonatas,
surely a production error – the listener
needs more time to savour the end of
The C major sonata
is notoriously tricky (all those white
notes!). At 0’32, for example, the left
hand sounds awkward – it is, assuredly,
but at this level we should not hear
it as such. It is true that there is
a certain excitement to this movement
in Kovacevich’s reading, but that seems
to spring from the fact he is struggling
with the notes rather than any pre-conceived
notion of youthful verve. What this
really needs is true effervescence,
something Kovacevich seems unwilling
There is an appropriate
courtly feeling to the Adagio, yet Kovacevich
does not conjure up the required concentration,
leaving us to skim on the surface of
the music again. If there is an element
of cheek to the Scherzo, is it not just
that little bit under-tempo to truly
capture the caprice of this movement?.
A literal account of the finale confirms
this as the weakest of the three performances
on this disc.
There is much to admire
here - Kovacevich has clearly thought
long and hard about these works. Yet
doubts creep in that, once there, never
really go away.