Memorable recital after 31 years

REVIEW / CONCERT

STEPHEN KOVACEVICH PIANO RECITAL

24th Singapore International Piano Festival

Victoria Concert Hall/Sunday

The theme "Fantasies and Memories" for this year's edition of the Singapore International Piano Festival was particularly apt when it came to the final recital, given by the legendary American pianist Stephen Kovacevich.

Older listeners will remember a dashing Stephen Bishop, who made recordings with the likes of Jacqueline Du Pre and Martha Argerich. They may also remember when, under the name Stephen Bishop Kovacevich, he performed a very memorable piano recital at the Victoria Concert Hall at the 1986 Singapore Arts Festival.

Now, having dropped the Bishop in his name, he performed the same piece for the first work in this evening's recital: Bach's Partita No. 4 In D Major. It would, however, be a fantasy to imagine that the 31 intervening years and a stroke have not taken their toll.

For Kovacevich looked every bit of his 76 years, with a gingerly gait and extremely low positioning of the piano stool to be as near the keyboard as possible. His short preambles before each piece were barely audible. But when he opened with Partita's Prelude, a rejuvenation of sorts took place, yielding some of the most lucid and sublime Bach-playing.

The aria-like Allemande and slow Sarabande were beautifully voiced, while the faster dance steps in the Courante and Menuet were lively. This was capped by a very fluent fugal finale in the Gigue, where his mercurial fingers never seemed to tire.

Things were less certain in Schubert's Sonata In A Major (D. 959), where there was a tendency to rush, slurring phrases and smudging textures through an over-liberal use of the sustaining pedal. His incessant wheezing, with audible intakes and outtakes of breath, was distracting at first, but soon became part of the auditory landscape.

Admirable still was his scaling of the work's peaks and troughs, such as the second movement's stormy central interlude (some of Schubert's most violent music), the dogged maintenance of pulse and forward motion through to its lyrical end.

Four short Brahms pieces also frustratingly showed variable form. The Ballade (Op. 10 No. 4) was taken too fast, but there was requisite passion and mincing delicacy for the Capriccio (Op. 116 No. 7) and Intermezzo (Op. 76 No. 3). The gentle dissonances of Intermezzo (Op. 119 No. 1) were to be a mirror for the first, but that impression had been earlier lost in transit.

The final work was Beethoven's penultimate Sonata In A Flat Major (Op. 110). There was again much beauty in his shaping of voices, notably in the opening movement and moodily introspective Adagio. By now, one would not have expected complete accuracy in the second movement's country dance or the finale's fugue and inverted fugue, which had their hairy moments.

Appreciative applause brought out a sublime encore in the A Flat Major Musical Moment by Schubert. That piece of symmetry would yet be another abiding memory of a great artist.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 06, 2017, with the headline 'Memorable recital after 31 years'. Print Edition | Subscribe