ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven Piano Works
WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 1′ Piano Concerto No. 2; Piano Concerto No. 3; Piano Concerto No. 4; Piano Concerto No. 5
PERFORMER: Stephen Kovacevich
CATALOGUE NO: 475 6319
Stephen Kovacevich’s recent Beethoven sonata cycle for EMI (reviewed May 2004) achieves arguably the most convincing Beethoven style of any pianist since Schnabel, and these 1970s recordings for Philips are cut from the same cloth. Brusque, urgent, playful and eloquent by turns, they compel attention through unflagging insistence that this music is vitally important. The concertos are characteristically involved. Has anyone ever played the Adagio of No. 2 with more momentous intensity, or, in the Emperor, stoked the fires of the finale with more determination? Accents and sforzandos bite incisively, and moments of sudden dynamic contrast emerge with optimal surprise (note the first loud chord in the development section of No. 4’s first movement). Colin Davis is a sympathetic partner for Kovacevich’s vision, and also evokes memorable lyrical solemnity at the beginning of No. 4.
Kovacevich’s famous recording of the Diabelli Variations continues to exert its spell, from the controversially energetic alla breve of Var. 1 and relentlessly breathless Var. 2 onward, via wonderfully burly force and texture in Vars 16-17. The bagatelles bristle with character and earthy wit, and the sonatas make for interesting comparison with those in the EMI cycle – Kovacevich’s dreamy treatment of the chromatic plunge that ends the introduction of the Philips Pathétique seems excessively tame beside the dramatic EMI solution, but the sense of serenity in the Adagio of Op. 31 No. 2 is greater in the earlier version. Philips’s sound, tighter and less resonant than EMI’s, matches the focus of Kovacevich’s forceful playing. David Breckbill