Stephen Kovacevich’s Beethoven cycle is not selling out at the Cadogan Hall, yet this concert on Monday evening was commendably well played and conducted.
Beethoven’s Prometheus Overture, published in 1804, shows little desire from the composer to break from the tried and tested Classical style; it is an unassuming but quietly fascinating work.
The London Mozart Players gave it their full attention.
Most noticeable were the strings, whose collective timbre was lustrous and fully nourished. I listened in vain for a violin split, even in the most delicately balanced lines. The slow introduction crept forward intriguingly, while the quavering moto perpetuo Allegro bustled and bubbled, the ensemble tight and unflustered, with wind and string dialogues strongly conveyed. The firm timpani playing added greatly to the drama. This refinement of orchestral performance would continue throughout the evening.
In Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, the LMP phrased aristocratically, Kovacevich conducting from the piano with elegance, but in the Allegro con brio, it was Kovacevich’s solo work on the keyboard that proved problematic. His surging, darkly expressive interpretation sat awkwardly with the orchestra’s stateliness. There was, here, a general loudness to the piano’s sound, the cheeky, nimble runs heavily projected and Kovacevich’s tendency to overpedal not helping to provide clarity. The pianist excelled in phrasing, not because of, but despite his touch on the instrument.
The concerto did improve greatly as it progressed, the warm piano harmonies that open the Largo instantly arresting, implicating the ear in sounds of the greatest intimacy and introspection. The balance between piano and orchestra became increasingly more homogenous, and Kovacevich’s virtuosity and thoughtful interpretative inflections in the Rondo proved captivating, almost but not quite banishing my initial reservations over this performance.
The Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral, similarly had both much to commend it and various interpretative choices that could harm the overall picture. The Allegro ma non troppo never quite developed a musical heartbeat, but the sound was fresh, clean and spacious, with a wide colouristic range in the development section and commendable woodwind throughout (the woodwind would also impress in the Andante molto mosso). The cinematic crescendo opening the third movement was expertly judged. The stormy outburst of the fourth movement made a great impression, but I would have liked to hear more from the strings, their tone submerged beneath the brass, losing from the ensemble some of its breathless excitement, however startling the timpani stabs were.
But it was the concluding Allegretto that proved most problematic, its entrance understated and its sound beautiful but never quite bathed in a shimmering, post-storm haze. A feeling of space was missing, and thus so was a sense of conclusion. Though the whole was excellently played, the performance was not, for me, a complete success.