Déjà Review: this review was first published in January 2001 and the recording is still available.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No.4, Op. 7
Piano Sonata No. 22, Op. 54
Piano Sonata No. 23, Op. 57 “Appassionata”
Piano Sonata No. 25, Op. 79 
Stephen Kovacevich (piano)
Originally reviewed as EMI Classics CDC5569652
rec. 2000, London, UK
Warner Classics 5569652 [70]

With this release Stephen Kovacevich’s survey of the 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas reaches 25 recorded and released, with only seven more to go (Nos. 1, 2, 3, 13, 14, 26 & 29). He is certainly taking his time over the task which would appear at first sight to be laudable, but perhaps this very approach gives a clue as to why these performances ultimately fail to convince.

Kovacevich’s technique is never in question, but one is made aware throughout the CD that the extended thought process, which he doubtless undertook before entering the studio, actually led to the performances becoming somewhat mannered and un-spontaneous. It’s as if the playing is not only conveying the notes but also, at the same time, saying to the listener – ‘listen to this turn of phrase, listen to this clever rubato’.

The best performance on the disc is the extraordinary Sonata No. 4 Op 7 in which Kovacevich is at his least interventionary. The symphonic scale and style of thisfour movement work allows less opportunity to indulge in rubato, which here is all to the good. Tempi are well judged and the second movement Largo has real gravitas, ‘con gran espressione’ as requested by the composer. The Allegro‘s conversational style is not compromised by too fast a tempo nor, indeed, is that of the Rondo finale where Beethoven requires a ‘Poco allegretto e grazione’, an instruction often missed by other pianists who tear the heart out of the music with tempos well in excess of Kovacevich’s.

Sonata No. 22 Op 54 is also quite well achieved, although here Kovacevich’s tendency to indulge in slight distortions of rhythm and sudden ‘brakes-on’ rubato begins to show itself. Small ‘finger slips’ occur with rather too great a regularity and they surely deserved re-takes.

The wonderful ‘little’ Sonata No. 25 Op. 79 adds to the disappointment. The first movement marked ‘Presto alla tedesca’ is played far too slowly and the remainder of the sonata never really recovers. The third movement – one of Beethoven’s wittiest creations – sounds altogether too serious. Andor Foldes’ fine performance on DG (long deleted) surely deserves a reissue.

For many, of course, it will be the ‘Appassionata’ Sonata which will be of the greatest interest. The sheer technique displayed in the performance of the great first movement cannot be denied and the result has a certain visceral excitement which will appeal to many listeners. But, musically, the feeling of being swept away by the drama is lacking, cloaked, as it is, by an overly thoughtful approach. Kovacevich is very careful to follow the exact letter of the score, but even here he tends to signal his ‘correctness’ too much (for example, the required breaks in the phrasing at 4:49 – 4:53 is surely signposted too obviously).

The slow movement flows well but it’s altogether too controlled. For comparison, in the finale ‘Allegro ma non troppo – Presto’, I turned to two key performances from competing cycles: Alfred Brendel and Richard Goode. Although very different from each other, both pianists provided that feeling of deep understanding of the music without sacrificing the ‘hell for leather’ approach which this music clearly calls for and which largely eludes Kovacevich (particularly at 7:12 onwards). Goode in particular (with rather smoother if obviously older recorded sound) gives the kind of overall experience which confirms the sheer greatness of this music.

Kovacevich’s many fans will snap up this CD, I’m sure. But a final word of warning, the recorded sound, whilst very wide in dynamic, is rather clangourous and Kovacevich sings along to his playing all too clearly.

Simon Foster

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