Kovacevich and Uchida With the classical recording industry in its present doleful condition, it is a pleasure to welcome an issue of genuine significance – Stephen Kovacevich’s now-completed cycle of the Beethoven piano sonatas for EMI. The first recordings were made in 1992, and with things as they are, it can hardly have been assumed that the company would see the series through. There must have been voices who expressed doubt as to whether we needed yet another complete recording of the sonatas, and it is much to the credit of EMI that they were not heeded.
It is more than 40 years since Kovacevich made his London debut at the Wigmore Hall. For a 21 year old to launch his career with the Diabelli Variations, that most subtle and varied of Beethoven’s late works, was an act of some daring, but his performance was sufficiently brilliant to make his name. Having recorded the work for Philips, he went on to record a handful of the sonatas at the start of the 1970s – recordings that were later selected for the Great Pianists of the 20th Century collection. In the early 1990s he signed to EMI, and this gave rise not only to this Beethoven cycle, but to wonderful versions of Brahms’s two concertos and startlingly dark readings of the last three Schubert sonatas.
Listening to the Beethoven, I went back more than once to the booklet to check that the performances were not taken "live," since they achieve a charge rarely achieved in the studio. Kovacevich is capable both of a great boldness of utterance and the most concentrated delicacy. The first movement of the Hammerklavier, for instance, is unusually – though grippingly – manic, while the great slow movement moves inexorably, its rhetoric never forced and its tension maintained simply through immaculate control and timing. Kovacevich clearly has as secure an intellectual grasp of this music as one could wish, but this never obstructs the directness of the playing. The cycle as a whole contains some of the most compelling pianism to have been put on disc in the last 20 years and can justly stand with those of Brendel, Gilels, Kempff and Schnabel.
As a recitalist, Kovacevich has sometimes followed the lead of his teacher in programming the last three sonatas together, and at the Festival Hall recently we had the chance to hear this programme at the hands of Mitsuko Uchida – an event that properly occasioned great excitement. Uchida is without question one of the most exciting pianists of the moment, and because her repertoire has centred on Mozart and Schubert, this was the first opportunity to hear her play these Beethoven works. Those who know her playing from her earlier Mozart recordings and performances will recognise the beauty and fullness of her sound, but will find that her sensibility has become more intense, even febrile. Schubert, of course, can respond powerfully to this kind of approach, as can be heard in Uchida’s recent recordings of his piano works, but Beethoven is less susceptible to it. In this recital at least, Uchida’s intensity rather smothered the music. Her playing was in many ways astonishing. The second movement of Op 109, for instance, can rarely have been played with such dash, or indeed so fast, and the fast forte passages in the second movement of Op 110 were similarly bold. In her fearlessness of attack, she actually reminded one of Kovacevich, but what was lacking here was the latter’s ability to let the music breathe when it needed to. Too often the effect was mannered. For all its frequent rhythmic complexity, the language of these late sonatas has an underlying simplicity that Uchida neither found nor perhaps quite looked for.
The Elvis of classical music The most charming moment of December came in Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s recital with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra at the Barbican. Hvorostovsky is clearly a singer with a very particular appeal. One recent press release has him down as the "Elvis of classical music," and in confirmation the Barbican audience was replete with extremely smartly dressed women of a certain age and more. The first half of his concert consisted of arias from Handel, Gluck, Rossini and Bellini, interspersed with a few orchestral numbers, and was presumably designed to demonstrate Hvorostovsky’s bel canto credentials. In this, it was only partially successful: vocally, he seemed too much on best behaviour, his singing overly declamatory and insufficiently supple. The Barbican Hall that night was not, however, the place to manifest signs of doubt, as the audience, wild at the end of each aria, did not have the look of those who would brook anything less than full adulation. Recalling the not dissimilar feelings of anxiety I had when I was once taken along to a Chippendales’ gig, I applauded fast and loud. Things relaxed in the second half when, with the seriousness of I Puritani behind him, Hvorostovsky turned to "old Russian romances" and Neapolitan songs (including, happily, "O sole mio"). Now liberated from the constraints of bel canto, Hvorostovsky’s singing was tremendous – subtle, expressive and rhythmically free. What was most impressive, though, was the obvious pleasure he took in what he was doing. As he quietly held the long virtuoso note that ended one of the Neapolitan songs, his mouth changed shape around the sound until he was simply beaming out at his audience. This time wild applause seemed only his due.