Wednesday, 25 November 2015
Once a Bishop
From his birth in 1940 until 1975, he was plain Stephen Bishop, named after his stepfather (typically, he plunged in at the deep end in his recording career with Philips, recording Beethoven's Diabelli Variations in 1968, sleeve pictured above). Then he added his Croatian father's name and became Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich. For many years now, he's been not-so-plain Kovacevich, and as such he celebrated his 75th birthday in high style with former other half Martha Argerich at the Wigmore Hall. Here they are playing Debussy's En blanc et noir - roles were swapped for a stupendous performance of Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances - with thanks to Clive Barda.
I reviewed the curate's-egg programme - still can't quite decide what I thought about the very speedy Schubert D960 Sonata, so very different from his Hyperion version - on The Arts Desk, preceding it with a long, long interview. Which was a privilege and an honour, but how much more I could have got out of it had the Universal box of all his Philips recordings made a timely arrival.
It was, at any rate, a pleasure to dive in and dig out the performances he specially rated: Brahms One and Schumann Concerto with Colin Davis, Bartók's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion with Argerich, and of his many recordings of the Brahms solo piano works, he singled out the Capriccio, No. 8 of Op. 76 as something very special and oh, so hard to play well. The set also plays to my being suckered-in by original sleeve artworks, sadly not of course reproduced at the size of the original LPs, but some are so very 1970s.
I've spent much time with the rest of the 25 CDs - amazed by his Chopin, a composer with whom we tend not to have associated him, and returning most often to the sets of late Brahms piano pieces (Opp. 116-119). He switched me on to some of these elusive, often very interior masterpieces in a 1981 Edinburgh Queen's Hall recital during my first year as a student (it may just have been Op. 117, and certainly a Beethoven sonata was also on the programme - though whether 'Tempest' or 'Waldstein', I can't remember - one of those because I made an only partially successful attempt to learn both in the early 1980s).
These are certainly top of the heap - in the interim, I've also played Nicolas Angelich's interpretations - and no-one captures better or more supernaturally the weird introspection of, say, Op. 116's No. 5 in E minor or the first two of Op. 119. The titanic and the intimate side by side which mean Kovacevich IS Brahms for me are most extreme in the first of the Op. 79 Rhapsodies.
Kovacevich's delicious solo rendition of Brahms's Op. 39 Waltzes provides an appropriate link to a more consistently miraculous birthday celebration more recently at the Wigmore - divine Elisabeth Leonskaja's 70th, surrounded by friends both young and (relatively) old. Again, I've written a review, this time a total paean, over on The Arts Desk, and I was thrilled to hear Jörg Widmann live as clarinettist for the first time - what a complete performer - but the four-handed Waltzes were a special delight.
Fireworks came from Samson Tsoy and Pavel Kolesnikov; taking over for some of the more inward numbers were 'Lisa' and acolyte Alexandra Silocea - whom I've known since writing the notes for her Prokofiev debut CD and like a lot, ditto her delightful husband Sébastien Chonion, who's been garnering awards for his production work at Glyndebourne. I'm assuming he took this picture of the happy Brahms foursome (update: he tells me he didn't, and only Alexandra, giving a Manchester Bridgewater Hall lunchtime recital even as I write, can identify the photographer). Kolesnikov is on the right.
Another good pic of the evening - which wasn't officially snapped - came from Tweeter Odetta. I hope she won't mind my reproducing this one, an alternative to Sebastien's group shot which I used on TAD. Sorry you can't see more at this size.
As for bumper boxes, I finally got to the end of 86 CDs - 50 in a Sony box, 36 from Universal - of Stravinsky, and talked about the experience with Andrew McGregor for about an hour on Saturday's CD Review, with some choice excerpts. I can honestly say it's been a constant enlightenment, and probably no composer weathers such consecutive listening better. Listen to a fraction of the thoughts I had about the two sets for the next 28 days on the BBC iPlayer. The chunk starts at about the 1hr48m mark.