Stephen Kovacevich at Tanglewood, Ozawa Hall, Thursday, July 2, 8 p.m.
Bach, Partita No. 4, D-Major, S.828; Scuhmann, Kinderscenen Opus 15; Beethoven’s 33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Opus 120
One thought that the foggy and dewy atmosphere at Ozawa hall on Thursday night was a welcome ambience for London resident Stephen Kovacevich. But, in the middle of the Courante in Bach’s Partita #4 in D (S.828), virtuoso Kovacevich imperiously walked off the stage after a sticky wicket: the oppressive humidity of the day had temporarily depressed a key or two, making it impossible to carry on. I thought he had had a lapse, but, after demonstrating the offending key to the crowd, he quickly exited, noting the impossibility of continuing.
Stephen Kovacevich (once known as Stephen Bishop, or Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich) is a mercurial artist indeed. His fingers fly almost without license from their owner. His Bach reminded me most of Gieseking’s eccentric approach: short, well articulated phrases were out— florid legatos at breakneck speed were in. The approach is an alternative to the usual canon of Bach pianism, i.e., the self-conscious attempt to repress a piano’s brilliance and pay some homage to the harpsichord’s contrapuntal character. Such is the case with Rosalyn Tureck, her immortal protégé Glenn Gould, and, more recently, Angela Hewitt. Not that Kovecevich incurred a sacrilege, but, like Gieseking, he has those “chops,” and everything he played this evening bore thrilling witness. But, instead of a show of mere bravura, Kovacevich’s technique is always couched with his light touch. As whirling and ballistic as things may be, his almost effortless touch and improvisatory style spoke within the interior of the music and not to the brash exterior.
Oh yes, after the despairing early intermission, a rather flustered piano technician leapt on stage and proceeded to remove the keyboard innards, and attempt some dehumidifying voodoo. I really couldn’t manage to see what he did or could do in this hiatus. I mourned the sudden breaking of Bach’s spell in the sunniest of the great keyboard Partitas. Thus far, Kovacevich’s rendition had been fascinating. The thought that the concert would abort must have struck a blow to many in the audience. I suspected the programming of the Beethoven Diabelli Variations was, in part, calculated to attract admirers of Moisés Kaufman’s recent Broadway hit, 33 Variations, and I was right about this. My immediate neighbors asked me whether I had come to hear the Diabelli, as they had, after enjoying the play; it would be their first time hearing Bach or Schumann. Crossover effects, I think, are healthy: witness Forman’s Amadeus giving the Mozart market an extraordinary bulge in new listeners. After the technician finished his damping of the dampers, Kovecevich reappeared and spoke candidly: he had experienced this problem earlier in Ozawa’s non-humidity-controlled hall, and would attempt to continue, forewarning us possible audible dropouts. The audience breathed a collective sigh of relief; Kaufman lovers blotted their teary eyes, and the show went on. The technician, apparently, did work some voodoo.
The interruption affected the remainder of the Bach, and even the Schumann. The last four dances from the Partita were approached with noticeable diffidence. The slow Aria, though, the magnificent centerpiece of the work, was played exquisitely—diffidence becomes it.
Kinderscenen, Schumann’s adored collection of miniatures, requires great introspection and nuance. If played without such vision, the pieces sound can sound trivial. I’m afraid that Kovacevich’s blanket fluid technique and pace did little to underscore the subtleties of this suite. For example, Von fremden Ländern und Menschen, “Of Foreign Lands and People,” demands a delicately sonorous and enveloping bass counterpoint in the second section: it is there that the child falls under the spell of the magic of a world beyond. The unsettling caesuras, as well, hint at an attendant blush of disorientation. I felt none of this with Kovacevich’s take on this piece, and felt disappointed with many of the others. The centerpiece, Träumerei, “Reveries,” was beautifully stated, but not wistful. Only in the final numbers, Kind im Einschlummern, “Child falling asleep,” and Der Dichter spricht, “The Poet Speaks,” did Kovacevich do service to the incandescence of these diminutive wonders.
The mighty Beethoven Diabelli Variations has been lauded as Beethoven’s greatest piano work, and as the greatest set of piano variations exceeding, in the words of Donald Francis Tovey, Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Not taking sides, both are pillars of how the variation form itself is a trope of the creative process. Both self-consciously imbue a simple structure with staggering fecundity, intellectual reflection, tragedy, humor, and high spirits. Something stays the same: in the Bach it’s the bass line and harmonic structure of the Aria; in the Beethoven it’s the entirety of the genetic code of Anton Diabelli’s frivolous waltz. Something varies: Bach creates a passacaglia of unparalleled invention; Beethoven creates a musical universe of characters, each from a chromosome or two of Diabelli. Beethoven clearly viewed Bach’s work as a gauntlet thrown, and attempted to rethink Bach’s structure and trump it with his revolutionary, Romantic vision. Both works achieve pathos in about the same spot: in Bach’s twenty-fifth, termed “The Black Pearl” by Landowska, and in the heart-stopping sequence of variations 29-31 in the Beethoven. Bach quotes some folk tunes in the final Quodlibet; Beethoven infuses a host of parodies in the later variations: Mozart’s Don Giovanni (variation 22), J. B. Cramer’s Piano Studies (variation 23), J. S. Bach’s Clavierbüng III (variations 24 and 32), and, even Beethoven’s own opus 111 (variation 33).
Scaling this pianistic Everest, Kovacevich’s great prowess was dazzling. One could write thirty-three paragraphs to do justice both to the work and to his interpretation. Oddly, the fugal variation #24 was more stylistically Bachian than was the interpretation of the Partita earlier in the evening. The raucous high jinks of #27 was a delight, and effortlessly played. The thundering grandeur of the penultimate fugue was something of a juggernaut; and the Arietta-like finale, something of an inverted valediction. His “no prisoners” pacing and roiling pianism were thrilling. One could imagine a more intellectually poised performance, for example, by Peter Serkin. But few musicians could shape the whole as consistently and formidably as did Kovacevich.
It was sad to see how under-attended the night was. Perhaps the weather was a factor; perhaps few listeners today recognize this musician with his new surname. He is better known in Europe, and as onetime spouse to Martha Argerich. Clearly Tanglewood officials will have to address climate control in this hall and elsewhere in the complex. For those who attended and endured the distraction of the first half, the patrician bearing and pianism will be remembered—even if, for some, only as consequential to a Broadway play.
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