Arnhem, 12 July 2004
Stephen Kovacevich has just played Beethoven’s 4rth Concerto with the Gelders Orkest (They record for Naxos and are better known under the name of Arnhem Philharmonic Orchestra) and the excellent, but very modest, German conductor Berhard Klee. Kovacevich impressed with his concentration, and the way he sits at the keyboard vaguely reminds me of the late Emil Gilels. “Just give me your number so that I can call you in case it doesn’t work out”says Kovacevich, when I ask him for an interview. We agree to meet the next day at the same venue. I sincerely hope that my mobile phone will not ring on the Saturday morning and indeed it doesn’t. There were a few other complications, I almost ended up in a traffic jam (on a Saturday morning 11.30 a.m!) and I almost got locked in the hall, but thankfully I managed to escape and meet Stephen Kovacevich for an exclusive interview, in which we focused on his relationship with the Beethoven concertos and sonatas, favourite pianists and his studies with Myra Hess.
Willem Boone (WB): You played Beethoven’s 4rth Piano Concerto last night, were you asked to play this concerto or did you choose it yourself?
Stephen Kovacevich (SK): I can’t remember, they wanted the Emperor Concerto, but I will play Beethoven 4 next week in New Zealand. I also played a lot of recitals lately, so there was no time to properly rehearse the Emperor.
WB: What is your relationship with this concerto?
SK: I am still in love with it!
WB: What makes this piece so special for you?
SK: Beethoven normally has an incredible energy, it doesn’t happen often that he is so gentle. Brahms hated to write vivace, if he used it at all, it was always “vivace ma non troppo”. Similarly, Beethoven must have hated to write “moderato” and the first movement of the 4rth concerto is an allegro moderato. The two other movements are different; the second is full of imagination and the third is hardly moderato, it’s vivacious. I have been working very long to find a consistent tempo for the first movement and last night I played with a very musical conductor, Bernard Klee, I think we found something together...
WB: Do you agree with Claudio Arrau who said the first movement was tragical?
SK: No, I don’t.
WB: Did you combine two of the Beethoven cadenzas in the first movement?
SK: No, I combined three, Beethoven’s and my own!
WB: You didn’t want to play your own cadenza?
SK: I did, there were a few moments from my own one, I think cadenzas shouldn’t always be the same.
WB: You made a second recording of the Beethoven concertos both as a soloist and conductor. Was that easier than playing them with a conductor?
SK: In a way, the ensemble of a soloist who conducts is easier, because you can put the piano in the middle of the orchestra and you are part of it. On the other hand, with a good conductor like Bernard Klee last night, I am happy too. As long as it’s not with a “Kapellmeister”.
WB: What do you mean?
SK: Routine... someone who is not inspired!
WB: EMI recently issued your set of complete Beethoven sonatas, would you consider this as a mile stone in your recording career?
SK: It is my mile stone, for sure!
WB: It took you a long time, around ten years...
SK: Longer, it was eleven or twelve years I believe. The biggest challenge was to learn the Hammerklavier sonata.
WB: What is so difficult about that particular sonata?
SK: It’s a monster... It’s difficult to be able to play all the notes... there are some moments, for instance in the final fugue where nobody really plays all the notes or trills, we almost do! The intensity of the whole piece is extremely difficult.
WB: Wouldn’t you say that it is equally difficult to sustain the slow movement since it is so long?
SK: Ah, that is the cri du coeur of Beethoven , along with the two arias of opus 110. Well, you either have the intensity and then it’s not difficult, or you don’t and then it is difficult...
WB: Is it true that the tempo marking of Czerny in the score of the first movement is impossible to play?
SK: Schnabel tried and I think Gulda too, although I am not sure about the latter. Peter Serkin also did, but I think it’s terrible. When I play it at tempo marking 132, it simply sounds ridiculous. I often had the same experience as a student: when I choose a tempo away from the piano, it was always too fast. We should bear in mind that Beethoven only heard the internal sound when he wrote this piece. We do have recordings from Bartok and Strawinsky and they didn’t always take their own tempo markings. Once I played the Piano Concerto of Michael Tippett with Michael Tilson Thomas and I played according to the required metronome marking and Tilson Thomas asked me why I played so fast. We shouldn’t be too strict with this, I think we want to be like good boys and girls and always respect the “good”tempo!
WB: Is it true that you rerecorded a few sonatas for the set of Beethoven sonatas?
SK: Yes, we were not happy with the sound of a few recordings and EMI wanted to offer the best possible sound. I remember we worked in a studio that had just been painted and things didn’t work at the time.
WB: How did that affect your playing?
SK: Some of the old recordings had a very heavy sound. The paint wasn’t hard and it obviously affected the sound.
WB: Do you have any particular favourites among the Beethoven sonatas?
SK: The Hammerklavier and also opus 2/2 and opus 109.
WB: Do you agree that the complete cycle is coherent in its variety?
SK: You can understand that opus 111 was the last one, the harmonies have become more chromatic and there is more pianistic virtuosity. For me opus 109 and 111 radiate some sort of faith that life begins again... maybe that’s philosophy and if it’s religion, then you call it religion. The darkest music by Beethoven I know is opus 110. The arias make me think of someone who is dying and who is almost unable to speak, especially when the aria comes back...
WB: The final fugue is so monumental too... So much concentration in hardly 20 minutes..
SK: Not even...
WB: Are you ready to take up other long term projects since you have finished this Beethoven project? All the Mozart concertos for instance?
SK: I am actually not interested in big projects, I’d like to learn a lot of chamber music, such as the piano trios and quartets by Brahms and the violin sonatas by Bartok.
WB: Have you already chosen partners for these projects?
SK: I am not thinking of a partner in particular, but yes, I have thought of some.
WB: I remember I heard you many years ago in a superb concert of Beethoven sonatas with Kyung Wha Chung. I thought EMI wanted to record it, but it unfortunately never worked out.
SK: Did you hear that in Holland?
WB: Yes, it was in Amsterdam around 1991.
SK: I’ll be playing in Amsterdam in November with Truls Mork, I love him as a cellist.
WB: I read in a French magazine that Rachmaninov is one of your idols. Why do you admrie him so much?
SK: He was a genius, his recording of Schumann’s Carnaval is phenomenal. Quite interestingly, he played a surprising amount of Beethoven sonatas, but he only played the first of the five concertos. The others gave him no pleasure, can you imagine?
WB: Do you also admire him because he played the kind of virtuoso repertoire you are usually not associated with?
SK: It could be....
WB: Have you ever played Rachmaninov in concert?
SK: No, I haven’t . I learnt all his concertos and I love them, but I haven’t played them in public. I don’t know if it is my music on stage...
WB: Are there any young pianists you adimire?
SK: Kissin is not young now, but he is marvellous. And the young English pianist Freddy Kempff, who is extremely gifted. The critics are against him, but I think he is very good.
WB: Do you understand the success of someone like Lang Lang who is so hyped up nowadays?
SK: Let’s wait and see....
WB: You studied with Myra Hess. What is the most important thing you learnt from her?
SK: The inside of the music. To produce a beautiful sound with a lot of variation. She was fantastic in Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mozart, Brahms. And she used to be very popular in Holland and the USA. She could fill Carnegie Hall!
WB: Wasn’t she unusual in her repertoire? She used to play the Brahms concertos
SK: Gina Bachauer also played them. It was unusual at the time, but not today.
WB: Speaking of feminine pianists, you lived together with a pianist who happens to be one of my idols, Martha Argerich. This is maybe a forward question, you are a very good pianist yourself, but wasn’t it sometimes difficult to live with someone who is that gifted? Have you never been jealous of Martha’s technical abilities?
SK: No, I haven’t, I think they are fantastic!
WB:She is rumoured to never pratice, is that true?
SK: O no, that is not true, on the contrary, she works very hard!
WB: Have you ever worked on the same pieces when you were together?
SK: Good question... Actually no, our repertoire is quite different.
WB: The two of you made a recording in the 70’s with Mozart, Debussy and Bartok and if my memory serves me correctly you never played together ever since. Martha plays a lot with other pianists, is there any chance that you will team up together in the future?
SK: That was when we were still together, I don’t know. It might happen.
WB: Martha and yourself have a daughter, Stephanie. She is a photographer, but suppose she would have liked to become a concert pianist, would you have encouraged her? What particular advice would you have given her?
SK: No, I wouldn’t. There are already two in the family, there is no need for another!
WB: You occasionally give concerts as a conductor. What are your ambitions as a conductor?
SK: I have no ambitions, I just want to conduct about ten or fifteen concerts a year, that’s all.
Stephen Kovacevich says he will play the Beethoven 4rth Concerto this evening in Nijmegen and says he has heard good things about the hall of “De Vereeniging”. He asks me whether it is indeed a good hall. I reassure him and answer that it is quite nice and that I like it actually better than the hall where he played last night (Musis Sacrum in Arnhem)... but he says he was quite happy last night...
© 2004 Willem Boone