Saturday, September 01, 2007

Don't Bother

I'm a big fan of the pianist Stephen Kovacevich, who is a superb interpreter of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and Mozart. When I read a few years ago that EMI was thinking of having him record some Chopin, I was intrigued but had some trepidation as well.

The CD was published in 2006, and I bought it earlier this year, then waited months to open it. The performances are about what I'd feared: the notes are all there, and everything else is all wrong. Kovacevich's penetrating intelligence and intensity are misapplied to Chopin. In Beethoven, he illuminates form and structure brilliantly - but that's not what Chopin is about. He doesn't seem able to let go and let the music unfold with freedom and flexibility. Instead, his tempos are rigid, and Chopin's filigree and ornamentation sound applied to the line rather than growing naturally from it. There's no charm at all in his playing, though he manages a fine range of charm, wit, and humor when he plays Beethoven. I think Kovacevich just hasn't got much of a feel for how Chopin should go; it's a bad fit with his own artistic temperament. And that is okay: every musician has strengths and weaknesses.

Not long before I opened the CD, I picked up a copy of his early LP of Chopin on eBay. It's still sitting unopened, but maybe I will give it a whirl and see if things were different with Kovacevich and Chopin 30 or more years ago. I won't be able to do any direct comparisons, because there is no overlap between the CD and the LP.

I'm looking forward to whatever he has in the works for the future. I know he's been playing both Berg and Bach on his last couple of tours, and those composers do seem like a good fit for him.


Ivan said...

I picked up the Chopin waltzes CD at the local library (if that's the one you're referring to?) and was similarly disappointed.

Richard Goode is an example of a Beethoven pianist who can do wonders with Chopin, if his Barcarolle is any indication, so Beethoven-Chopin 'crossover' is possible.

To Kovacevich's credit, the Ravel Waltzes on that same album are among the finest I've ever heard. The Valses nobles et sentimentales is an elusive piece (I've recorded it myself) and he's right on the money: spontaneous, vibrant and the sound is electric.

This, in many ways, is even more surprising because Beethoven's and Ravel's aesthetic have so little in common, whereas Chopin's pianistic genius is an extension of Beethoven's innovation.

Kovacevich is more versatile than some think. I heard him do the Prokofiev flute sonata, and it was also very suited to him. It did sound a LOT like Beethoven, but, hey, that's a totally coherent way of reading Prokofiev.

For me Kovacevich remains one of the most underrated pianists around, along with Ivan Moravec. Either of them deserve the notoriety of a Pollini.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Hi, Ivan!

Yes, the Chopin waltzes CD that was published on EMI. I've never heard Goode's Chopin. I don't like his Beethoven that much; it seems very, very middle of the road and I prefer more individual interpreters. But then, I didn't care much for Perahia's famous Mozart concerto series, and I loved his Goldberg Variations.

I'll give Kovacevich's Ravel another listen. Where would I find yours?

I agree that Kovacevich is underrated, and I don't understand why. He is so great in Beethoven and Schubert! I also love his Brahms but realize not everyone does.