Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Stephen Kovacevich @ Cadogan Hall, London

15 March 2007

This concert marked the start of a major Beethoven cycle to be undertaken by Stephen Kovacevich and the London Mozart Players over the course of the next 14 months, taking in the nine symphonies and five piano concertos. Here it began with a look at the composer’s emergence from the classical period.

In an odd change to the billing the second piano concerto swapped places with the first symphony, and failed to galvanize fully in this performance.

This was due mostly to a slightly sluggish orchestral contribution, with tuning awry at the end of the slow movement and general ensemble in the tutti passages not always on the button.

This wasn’t helped by the positioning of the conductor/pianist, who sat with his back to the second violins, and nor was it aided by his health, for Kovacevich was assailed by a persistent cough during the first movement cadenza. To his credit this served no distraction, and there were in fact many good moments in the performance also. Kovacevichs pianism contained much of the insight we have come to expect from him, the adoption of fast tempi keeping the music on its feet.

A similar approach to the metronome helped in the first symphony, which benefited from a far greater tautness of ensemble, rhythmic drive and a brisk exchange of ideas in the faster music. The minuet – a scherzo in all but name – drove forward with a spring in its step, while the finale’s deliberately tentative opening moves took flight with crisp, lively execution. Kovacevich paid close attention to dynamic shading, an unusual spell in the trumpet part of the finale notwithstanding. This lead to a second subject that danced wonderfully off the beat.

Kovacevich spoke before the concert of the conundrum conductors face when choosing tempi for Beethoven, in particular the faster movements, and told of his admiration for Otto Klemperer‘s recorded legacy of the composer. That may show in the later concerts in this series, for the second symphony took off at quite a lick when required. Again, lithe textures and sharp ensemble were more reminiscent of a period instrument performance, with Kovacevich attaining considerable momentum in the scherzo and finale. Meanwhile the slow movement appeared a little disjointed, though such is the abundance of melodic ideas that this was perhaps inevitable, given Beethoven’s formal approach.

Kovacevich was not hugely animated at the front, though the orchestra barely needed to raise a collective eye. The warmth with which they applauded their conductor suggested a mutual enjoyment. A pity the Cadogan Hall was little more than half full, for this cycle looks certain to contain much of interest as it unfolds, the symphonies making an auspicious start here.

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