The Chopin Society full to the rafters to salute a master
Stephen Kovacevich’s aristocratic style and search for the perfect legato were the hallmark of a recital that included Berg op 1 and Beethoven op 110 but also the intimate luminosity of Chopin in two nocturnes op 48 n. 2 and op.62 n.2 and three mazurkas op 41 n.1,op 56 n.3.op17 n. 4
When as teenager in London and I began to realise that music was to be the most important thing in my life there appeared on the scene an amazing group of friends who would meet up regularly at Fou Ts’ong’s house in Hermitage Lane on the edge of Hampstead Heath.It was there that Daniel Barenboim first played Brahms with Jaqueline Du Pre and joined ranks in playing chamber music with Itzhak Perelman,Pinchas Zuckerman,André Tchaikowsky,Vladimir Ashkenazy,Nelson Freire,Martha Argerich,Radu Lupu and of course Stephen Kovacevich (Bishop in those days) who was an athletic young man fresh from California studying in London with Dame Myra Hess.Madame Tillett was proud to present Stephen and Jaqueline together in duo and as soloists with Barbirolli and Boulez -Stephen in Beethoven 4 and Jaqueline with Elgar they were her young stars.The recording of their Beethoven Sonatas is one of the recordings that I have most cherished for the past sixty (!) years.
Madame Tillett was known as the Empress of agents who was loved and feared in equal measure.When Jackie decided to stay by the side of Daniel Barenboim,the man she loved,during the war in Israel the idea that her stars could renounce engagements for such a thing was completely incomprehensible.All these artists have gone on to illustrious careers but in that formative period there seemed to be more time for them to have fun together and they could regularly be seen playing together in the Southbank Summer Festival and Brighton Festivals both directed by an as yet almost unknown energetic young Daniel Barenboim.The summer school in Dartington too was a favourite haunt and I well remember the arrival of Stephen in his coupé sports car with a tennis racquet and beautiful companion on the seat next to him ready to spend a week with us students sharing music and fun with us whilst enjoying the wonder that was Dartington under Glock and Amis in that period.
A few years later I set up home in Rome and side by side with my actress wife we created the Ghione Theatre next to St Peter’s Square .For thirty years it became a much needed cultural centre in the eternal city that in the 80’s and 90’s lagged much behind the rest of the major European capitals.(With the opening of the Renzo Piano concert halls since 2005 that has all changed and Rome is now one of the major beacons for classical music).I remembered all the wonders I had experienced in London and in between producing my wife’s plays I would squeeze in many of the artists that were virtually unknown to Rome audiences.Together with my old teachers Vlado Perlemuter and Guido Agosti, we invited Shura Cherkassky,Annie Fischer,Paul Tortelier,Rosalyn Tureck ,Ruggiero Ricci and even Stockhausen .I had never forgotten Fou Ts’ong and Stephen Kovacevich though and they became firm favourites in Rome and through their masterclasses inspired the same passion in young musicians that I had known.Stephen came to us via a charming old world agent in Milan.Donatella Brizio was an elderly lady with such integrity and honesty where in those days an agents word was her bond(!).She was happy to persuade Ruggiero Ricci,Dmitri Alexeev and Stephen to come to us in Rome as she together with her equally noble colleague Gabriella Giordano would bring Alicia de Larrocha ,Shura Cherkassky and Rosalyn Tureck as they in turn would applaud my wife in our productions when on tour in Milan.
I remember Stephen coming one year to play the Schubert B flat Sonata and in between asking if I would mind chopping off a good portion of the piano stool legs he asked if I minded if he played the A major Sonata instead as he thought it more suitable for the piano.I used to video record the concerts just for the archive and one year he asked me not to as he felt he could be much freer if it was not frozen onto a video tape.He is the only artist that has ever commented on how much money I must have lost through having a poor audience when in May his concert coincided with a football final in Rome!
It is just this honesty and integrity in his artistry that shone through all that we heard today at the Chopin Society.It is thanks to Lady Rose Cholmondeley and Gillian Newman that we are able to hear such artists who are excluded for some extravagant reason from the ‘business’that the concert profession has become.In the past years I have been able hear such artists as Janina Fialkowska,Dmitri Alexeev and an unforgettable ninety year old Abbey Simon.An atmosphere where they play amongst friends and feel happy to be able to share their music and experience in an un pressured way just as the artists did for us in Rome.Gillian is not only a wonderful organiser but is equally renowned for her home made marmalade!Lady Rose is there side by side with the artist as they play their heart out for her and are often offered tea and cakes afterwards .The Artist is even entrusted with the key to the bathroom in the vestry- green room.(Janina inadvertently took it to Bavaria with her and was quickly reminded to return it for the next artists relief!)
Wonderful to be able to hear Stephen again and see him sitting almost on the floor with his hands uplifted to the keys.And it was obvious that like Wilhelm Kempff ,he was searching for the perfect legato where the sounds could blend into each other without any percussive or athletic interventions .Sounds that melted into each other with a luminosity and sense of balance which was so noticeable from the very first knotty strands of Berg’s remarkable op 1 Sonata.There was passion too but always within the sheen that was created by a subtle and sometimes even excessive use of the pedal.It allowed the music to grow from the initial gentle idea through a world of anguish and passion before resolving or at least resting ,in peace.It was remarkable to note too that there was no I pad or aide memoire necessary where the music was ingrained in the soul and no longer on the page!Young musicians please take note!
It was not only refreshing to hear Stephen but also to admire his undemonstrative stillness at the keyboard as he was totally engrossed and concentrated on transmitting with such intelligence and humility the composers wishes.This concentrated composure has always been the hallmark of the young American teenager who was adopted by Myra Hess as the true disciple of her integrity and artistry that made her so loved and cherished.I think that she was proudly present at his debut recital at the Wigmore Hall when he astounded the musical world with his performance of the Diabelli variations.In fact it was in late Beethoven and in particular op 109 and 110 that Dame Myra will always be remembered.
It was in the performance of the Sonata op 110 that we heard today that we too were reminded of how beautiful the piano can sound and how Beethoven’s minute details can be transformed into the same magic that the composer himself was only able to hear in his head.If some of the detail was no longer as precise as it would have been it is a small price to pay to hear such magic pour from the hands still of Stephen Kovacevich unbelievably in his eightieth year.The vision of the lythe young American in Dartington springs to mind but it is his music that has remained in my heart and which is still very much present.The unforced sheen he gave to the small group of ‘obligatory’Chopin was a wonder of colour and mystery almost as though on a voyage of discovery into a world of whispered sounds.The middle section of the F sharp minor nocturne I have rarely heard so subtly teasing with kaleidoscopic sounds,the same wondrous sounds that he miraculously ended the mazurka op 17 n.4 with.Sounds that were barely audible but that shone like the jewels they truly can be.
Tea and cakes afterwards with Stephen and most of the audience was one of the wonders that can still be found in certain corners of a great city if one wants to look.
Vieni,vedi vinci indeed …….Hats off to the Chopin Society and all those that sail with her.