Stephen Kovacevich 70th birthday concert
Such great programming here, so it was a shame to see that the hall was only half full. We were spoiled by the artists here too - all of them truly extraordinary players.
First was cellist Truls Mork who joined Stephen Kovacevich for Beethoven's last cello sonata (op.102 no.2). It hardly needs to be said that this late work (1815) coming from his last period is one of the finest in the repertoire. The quiet poetry of the second movement, one of Beethoven's great late cantilenas, and the first true slow movement composed for cello and piano, came across particularly well here, Mork's tone focussed and rapt and finding a purpose that hadn't quite settled in the first movement. Mork is one of the world's greatest living cellists, his playing direct, unmannered, beautiful, technically immaculate, the tone burnished and full whilst never seeming strained.
The pair were then joined by violinist Philippe Graffin, not a name I recognised, but maybe the most impressive performer of the evening. Really brilliant violin playing: gutsy, full toned, stylish, passionate and so clear in intent and effect. Playing like this puts the listener completely at ease - there's never a question that anything will go wrong, and if it does, it's completely irrelevant. Indeed, one might say the same of Mork. Together they performed Brahms' Piano Trio no.3, a terse and wonderfully intense work, playing it as if it was the younger brother of the approximately contemporaneous double concerto - wonderfully energetic string playing, accompanied and cajoled by the stormy pianism of Stephen Kovacevich - a trio of players to savour.
After the interval, Philippe Graffin returned with a new pianist, Claire Désert for the fiendish Phantasy by Schoenberg, a late work from 1949. Again, Graffin played as if possessed, the violin lines pouring out with such ease and elan and with a rare passion that seemed to suit the music to a tee. If only Schoenberg was played like this more often, he might have a few more followers! At the end even he seemed surprised by his own playing staggering backwards as he did after the last note had sounded.
Next was Schoenberg's Kammersymphonie no.1 op.9 in Webern's arrangement for piano trio plus flute and clarinet, here provided by Juliette Hurel and Chen Halevi respectively, again both players of the highest calibre. This is an arrangement that requires true virtuosos, all parts being excruciatingly difficult, the playing here immaculate with the ensemble blending beautifully, especially in the gorgeous slow section. The playing was perhaps a bit unremittingly intense - a sensory overload from start to finish, and maybe a bit more contrast would have been welcome, but this is cavilling when the standard of the playing was so high. I'm not sure how worthwhile this arrangement is - it's certainly impressive and often very beautiful, but how often are five such able musicians really going to be assembled to do it justice - it becomes a bit of a herculean exercise in virtuosity. Finally Kovacevich rejoined the group along with another pianist, Marisa Gupta, Kovacevich this time playing chimes in a reduction of Debussy's Prélude a l'apres-midi d'un faune by David Matthews. Lovely as this was, it really did feel like something was missing this time, and the chimes were a bizarre and distracting addition. Even so, it was a lovely end to a magnificent evening of chamber music.