Stephen Kovacevich (then Stephen Bishop Kovacevich) didn't quite manage to record all 32 of Beethoven's piano sonatas when he was under contract to Philips Classics. Since switching to EMI Classics, he has restarted the cycle, but he has taken a long time over it. With this release, he moves tantalizingly closer to the end as he tackles the "Hammerklavier," the most challenging sonata of the 32.
This disc is quite an achievement. The pianist's technique is immense, and yet he doesn't err by making the "Hammerklavier" sound too easy or too grandiose, as some of the great pianists have done. Kovacevich makes the sonata sound less anomalous than it sometimes does; it fits smoothly into Beethoven's canon here. Kovacevich seems to be telling us that, as the fingers struggle, so does the soul. Anything but glib, he also reminds us how humbling Beethoven's music can be, and also of the composer's contradictory nature. How could such an arrogant misanthrope compose such humane and life-enhancing music? Tempi are well-judged – no stony edifices here – and there is drama but no exaggeration.
Most pianists would emphasize the difference between the "Hammerklavier" and "Les Adieux" Sonatas. Kovacevich chooses to draw lines of connection between the two. As a result, the latter work becomes less cute than it sometimes is. The sadness of parting and the joy of returning are taken at face value, not with ironic distancing. Other readings are more "unbuttoned." Kovecevich's sober interpretation takes the music literally.
The eleven Op. 119 Bagatelles separate the two sonatas. Again, Kovacevich soft-pedals Beethoven the trickster and vulgarian and emphasizes the composer's stylistic consistency and integrity.
Kovacevich hasn't always had the best engineering in this series. Here, the sound is a little glassy, but not bad. The pianist's vocalises – shades of Glenn Gould – also are captured by the microphones.
Kovacevich's Beethoven cycle will be ranked among the best to come along in the past twenty years. This CD is further proof of his ever-questioning mastery.
Copyright © 2004, Raymond Tuttle