Friday, May 15, 2015

En récital: Kovacevich & Beethoven

No. 198 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at


Today’s podcast features a performance of the three last piano sonatas composed by Ludwig van Beethoven by pianist Stephen Kovacevich.

The American pianist was known before 1975 as Stephen Bishop and then Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich. According to his Wikipedia biography, when his mother remarried, his name was changed to Stephen Bishop, the name under which he performed in his early career. He later discovered that he was often being confused with the singer and guitarist Stephen Bishop. To avoid the confusion, he began performing as Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich and later simply as Stephen Kovacevich.

Born in California in 1940, Kovacevich made his concert debut as a pianist at the age of 11; then, at the age of 18 he moved to London to study under Dame Myra Hess on a scholarship and has been a London resident ever since, currently living in Hampstead. In 1961 he made a sensational European debut at the Wigmore Hall, playing the Sonata by Alban Berg, three Bach Preludes and Fugues and Beethoven's Diabelli Variations. In 1967, he made his New York debut and since then he has toured Europe, the United States, the Far East, Australia, New Zealand and South America.
As a soloist, he has frequently performed and recorded works by, amongst others, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Bartók.

Ludwig van Beethoven's thirty-two piano sonatas - the mirror of his creative span - explore, like the quartets and symphonies, dimensions of universal experience. ‘Unconventional, experimental' music of' ‘lofty spirituality' peopled by ‘many different characters' was Hugo Leichtentritt's thumbnail sketch of Beethoven's late sonatas. Ranging ‘from inferno to paradiso,' he told Harvard audiences in the thirties, ‘their magnificent cosmic visions (Opp 106, 109, 111) have passed beyond the appassionato and the Titanic phases into metaphysical depths, mystic regions of a world beyond, [while] intermezzi of incomparable lyric beauty and intimacy of utterance (Opp 81a, 90, 101, 110) tinged with melancholy sing of the enchanting loneliness of the terrestrial world.'

The group of three includes the op. 109 sonata, characterised by a free and original approach to the traditional sonata form. Its focus is the third movement, a set of variations that interpret its theme in a wide variety of individual ways. Op 110, an intricate forging of classical rigour and modern fantasia, recitative/aria and baroque fugue, was completed on Christmas Day 1821. ‘A work in every respect wholly excellent, extremely melodious throughout, and rich in harmonic beauties,' (Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung).

Dedicated to his patron and pupil the Archduke Rudolph of Austria, Beethoven's final sonata, Op 111 (1821-13 January 1822), travels a Romantically-charged journey from dissonance to concord, black forte G minor diminished-seventh homelessness to white pianissimo C major repose, primeval darkness to celestial light, earthly passion to heavenly pæan. ‘A summing-up of Beethoven's whole nature,' believed the great Edwin Fischer, a spiritual testament symbolizing ‘this world and the world to come.'

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