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.

29 comments:

John Gardiner said...

Interested to read your thoughts on Kovacevich's Brahms opp. 116-119, David. I must revisit the recordings. Do you know Radu Lupu's disc of opp. 117-119? That was the penny-drop recording for me, and remains for me something very special.

David said...

I don't, John, and I must correct that. There's a Lupu Schumann disc which is close to Desert Island territory for me. Interestingly Leonskaja chose him as a favourite when I interviewed her at Verbier. Only seen him live once, in Stockholm a few years ago - a rather 'this is the way I do it' Beethoven Third Concerto (not one of my favourite works).

A writer - hardly a critic - who shall remain nameless has written a daft piece in a right-wing weekly about late Brahms being nothing but boring miserabilism. Well, where do you begin with such blind-spottery? Simply the first and last pairs of Op. 119 should be enough to show that JB runs the gamut of emotions.

John Gardiner said...

I couldn't agree more, David, about these wonderful late Brahms pieces: slowly (but not that slowly: they're so accessible) but surely they slotted into place, after a couple of decades of Brahms-listening, as quite uncanny distillations of Brahms's wisdom and warmth. (Brahms too on-the-level, surely, ever to be a dull nihilist?)

I've only ever seen Lupu live once, too, with Colin Davis and the LSO in the Brahms 1st. I can't remember all that much of the performance: Lupu's great strength, it strikes me, is his immediacy and intimacy, rather than any public persona, which comes across very well on records/CDs. That disc of opp. 117-119 (plus op. 79) really is quite something, I think.

David said...

No, John, never a dull nihilist (though I think that might apply to the writer in question). So much sadness, it's true, but often followed by an optimistic perspective, either within the same piece or in the one that follows. Perhaps the nearest analogy for ambiguity and/or a sense of the metaphysical might be Shakespeare's late romances or Henry James's last three novels.

Susan Scheid said...

Well David, I am certainly a weak link here in the conversation, as I am left to think, not for the first time: how do you find time to even listen to all that music, let alone assess it with such perspicacity? I looked for the BBC program coming up, but could not find it (what's showing for this Saturday seems to be Bellini's Norma). I definitely want to tune in for your Stravinsky assessment and send it on to my music discussion compatriots as well (Curt, particularly, is a great lover of Stravinsky). Back on repertoire for piano, I haven't dipped into that for a very long time, but have recently spent a bit of "quality time" with Rachmaninov's and found myself repeatedly moved and delighted all over again. (I think, actually, that the first version of the Symphonic Dances I owned was for two pianos, with Argerich (but with Alexandre Rabinovich).)

David said...

Never a weak link, Sue. Just steep yourself in Kovacevich's (or Lupu's) late Brahms. The Stravinsky slot is listed further down the blurb for tomorrow's CD Review (though it's headed with the Norma): as I thought, 10.30-11.45 (plus comment from me on the disc of the week, which I've already reviewed in the BBC Music Mag). That Argerich/Rabinovich disc is fab - introduced me to the First Suite with the incredible tolling minimalism of the 'Bells' finale.

Anonymous said...

David: Thanks for the FYI (and now I realize I would have seen this if I'd clicked the "see more" icon). Have cued up the Kovacevich Brahms, as well.

Howard Lane said...

Wow, the orchestral Les Noces extract you played is absolutley fantastic and sounds like a must have, but then the DG version of L'Histoire du Soldat is the best there is - how to choose which box set? Not sure I have existential space for both (and notwithstanding the missus' disagreement that an 87 disc marathon would be endurable). L'Histoire is certainly one of my very favourite Stravinsky works and I doubt I would find time to explore a 56 disc set, so I would probably stick with the DG, even if that meant missing all those great early recordings, although I found the dated sound quality of the Symphony of Psalms a bit tiresome.

After Stravinsky, Bartok too was my entry point into the world of 20th Century composers back in my youth, but I have yet to find a perfect version of the Sonata for 2 Pianos and Percussion. The extremes of volume - the quiet sections are almost inaudible unless you have the ff's at a deafening level - and a certain emptiness in the overall sound mix, or perhaps the percussion, always leaves me unsatisfied, despite my affinity for Bartok and the percussive world. I see from the cover of my Gyorgy Sandor/Rolf Rheinhardt recording that Stephen Bishop (as was) made quite a few Bartok recordings at that time, and many since no doubt. Perhaps I should stick with the orchestrated version of the Pianos/Percussion, although that seems overdressed somehow...

Glad you survived your marathon in any case without feeling that "That About Wraps It Up For Igor" as Douglas Adams might say. Terrific listening and such perceptive analysis. Did you hear the recent Peter Erskine/Turnage drum kit concerto on R3? I've just got my "Weather Report Legendary Live Tapes" 4 CD set produced by Erskine. Another superb R3 concert from Huddersfield recently was Derek Bailey's "Ping" with Trevor Watts, Mark Sanders and Simon Fell, great to hear them getting some exposure. Recommended if you ever have time (ha ha).

Susan Scheid said...

David: That "Anonymous" was me, don't know how that happened. Anyway, just had to leap back here after listening to your Stravinsky CD Review to let you know how much I enjoyed and appreciated it. (I'm about to dive back in to take more notes for future listening reference.) Among many things that struck me first time around were your comments on the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and particularly the bassoons, performing Air de danse from Orpheus. Another beauty completely new to me was the Pastorale for violin and piano. Particularly given Stravinsky's vast and varied list of works, it's an enormous gift not only to be guided toward new-to-me works, but also to performances of particular note by a trusted source. I, certainly, would otherwise be overwhelmed (and often am!).

David said...

Thanks so much, you two loyal listeners. I suppose I was left just a bit dissatisfied, kicking myself for what I had to leave out - ie the Ebony Concerto with Benny Goodman (the new Sony set also has the earlier Woody Herman Band recording), much from Boulez and Knussen's compelling way with late Stravinsky. But one's always in safe hands with the flawless Andrew McGregor (I also thought his lightning-flash summary of the Pikovaya Dama scenes was superb). J said he had to switch off early on because he was afraid I'd fall off the high wire, and I suppose that's a good analogy for live broadcast, especially at such length. I didn't, but I'm nervous of listening back so might not.

There was only one piece I really can't stand: the Cantata, not so much blanched, like the ravishing Persephone and parts of The Rake, as bleached - Bostridge seemed like the right choice for the interminable 'Tomorrow shall be my dancing day'.

Otherwise, especially from hearing how cheap the DG set is, that's the one for range and beauty. A lot of the Stravinsky conducts... stuff is really there for documentary interest, though how enlightened CBS were to record so much.

Howard, do you have the Argerich/Bishop-K recording of the Bartok Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion? I know that's one of his very favourite recordings, and like all else in the Philips box still sounds wonderful.

Susan Scheid said...

PS: I meant oboes on the air de danse!

Susan Scheid said...

David: Coming back one more time to say, have just listened through a second time, to take notes, and I guarantee you you stayed on the high wire with perfect balance throughout. Just terrific. (Have also just cued up the Bartok Sonata you've noted--really enjoyed the late Brahms, by the way.) Thanks again for all.

David said...

Yes, oboes - my instrument. The Orpheus bassoons are very fine too (and the harp, and the leader, and...) Is the conductorless wonder still going? Their recordings seem so long ago now, though state of the art in performance and sound.

And thank you: sure there must have been some slips of the brain. But J was relieved to know I didn't fall off, can eventually listen with some peace of mind.

Susan Scheid said...

I'd forgotten (if I knew) that your instrument was the oboe! Orpheus is very much around, though I haven't attended a performance in probably decades. Just looked, and they actually have what looks to be an interesting concert, including something from the Fairy's Kiss(!), coming up at Carnegie Hall in a week (though I can't attend, as per usual):

HANDEL: CONCERTO GROSSO, OP. 6, NO. 5

STRAVINSKY: DIVERTIMENTO FROM LE BAISER DE LA FÉE FOR VIOLIN (NEW ARR. DMITRY SITKOVETSKY)

TCHAIKOVSKY: VALSE-SCHERZO, OP. 34

RESPIGHI: GLI UCCELLI (THE BIRDS)

d said...

One is again amazed at your expertise, but in my case also at your clarity and naturalness, and enthusiasm. I would argue that the attempt by A McGregor to summarise Pique Dame was not a success - if you know it anyway, why have it at all, and if you do not have it in mind, it was too rapid and complex. And it could have been much shorter as it was followed by only an extract

A poor amateur like me was encouraged to find that the (earlier) Callas won as Norma. I have always thought so, and I give very high marks to the few bars before the great aria. Even though it is not put into words one can always feel the Priestess saying -that's enough, it is time to address the Goddess. Also during the survey I was impressed by Bartoli, who won as the stereo

I do not quite see how the fact that a critic ( sorry, writer) was adverse to Brahms connects with the fact that he/she wrote for a right wing journal - though I suppose one can make the comparison with Hitler, who did not rate Brahms ( preferring Bruckner, shades of the old controversy)

David Damant said...

d is me ! Susan and I are clearly being cyber-bugged

David Damant said...

PS Actually having checked the libretto, the Priestess does say "Peace ! I cut the sacred Mistletoe " which is indeed " Enough, it is time to address the Goddess "........but somehow this point always strikes me most with Callas

David said...

Well, well, Sue. Go! Gorgeous programme - I'm curious to see what Sitkovetsky, famous not only as a great violinist but also for his transcription of the Goldberg Variations for string trio, has done with The Fairy's Kiss. The violin-and-piano version by Strav himself was one of the revelations on the DG box, as played by van Keulen and Mustonen.

Sir D, I was ony vaguely identifying the rag for which this worm happens to write. Though he has been a right-wing and Catholic provocateur in the crudest terms. His true place is on the Daily Mail, where he might even out-crudify the (IMO) ppalling Quentin Letts.

Susan Scheid said...

David: That was my reaction on looking Orpheus up in response to your question, but alas, it's not even remotely possible. I miss out on so much, though I will see Lulu this coming week in the Kentridge production. Very much looking forward to that.

David said...

Yes, I wish I'd had an evening free to see the Met live screening of Lulu, which has been universally raved about. Haven't seen Marlis Petersen since her terrific Zerbinetta when the Christof Loy Ariadne auf Naxos first opened here at the beginning of Antonio Pappano's Royal Opera directorship.

We had our own showgirl-opera experience in excelsis on Friday night, when Ermonela Jaho just went for diva broke as Leoncavallo's Zaza in concert. As I wrote at the time, exactly what Italian opera at its best should be all about, though it's rare when it happens.

David Damant said...

David, could you enlighten your loyal blogees by explaining what Italian opera at its best should be all about?

David said...

Read the Arts Desk review of Zaza. Meanwhile, one word will do it: passione. But with focus and beauty of sound if possible (not always so with Callas, but the engagament is more important).

David Damant said...

Well, your quality as a critic is enhanced by the wide range of your insights, and your analysis is clear. For myself, I distrust melodrama, as displayed in most of the late 19th century operas, as a dangerous and unbalanced portrayal of the human predicament. It seems that Prince Lampedusa, of the Leopard, agrees with me ( pages 114 - 118 of the Gilmour biography). There was the same decay in painting, till Picasso blew the whistle.

David said...

But I don't think we're supposed to approve of everything about the prince, and Lampedusa himself was saved from reaction by his complicated take on things. Anyway, Don Carlo, Otello and Falstaff were no decline, and orchestrally speaking Puccini was a developer of the Italian opera tradition who managed to please just about everyone (and still does). For timing, only Mozart is his equal. There was no decay, and nobody really blew it away (with the exception of Berg, perhaps), since melody has to remain at the heart of opera. And even the chief themes in Lulu are singable/hummable.

David Damant said...

I suppose that I distrust all emotion (Pas trop de zele as Talleyrand said) unless there is an intellectual over-ride, controlling the passions. Therefore I regard melodrama, if it is taken seriously, as undesirable. This may cut me off from many elements of enjoyment, but the world would be a happier place if everyone distrusted their own feelings

As a sort of support for my view, Melba in her memoirs referred to Falstaff as Verdi's " strange swan song"- She reflected the morality of the nineteenth century whereas in Falstaff Verdi did indeed escape from that

David said...

The 'intellectual over-ride, controlling the passions' is the way a great composer orders the material. You may feel manipulated by Puccini, but he knows what he's doing. And as Strauss said of Wagner, 'the mind which conceived Tristan must have been as cold as ice'.

David Damant said...

But Wagner himself wrote that in his music he aimed to do away with any intellectual over-ride. That is the terrible danger.....unless what he wrote as theory was not what comes through in the music

David said...

What Wagner wrote and what he did in his music, lobet Gott, are two very different things. Works of that length would not have survived in the rep without rigorous structuring and selection. It makes about as much sense as Stravinsky saying music can express nothing when he plasters ben cantando and espressivo all over his scores.

David Damant said...

I was referring to the content of the music when it emerged. I understand of course that the music can only emerge from a rigorously established structure