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…