Stephen Kovacevich

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas

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Stephen Kovacevich, formerly Stephen Bishop and then (presumably to avoid confusion with the singer/songwriter of the same name) Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich, was born in the U.S. but moved to Britain to study with Myra Hess (whose style his own resembles very little) and has enjoyed a basically international career. For the EMI label he recorded a complete cycle of Beethoven's piano sonatas, beginning in the early '90s and issued as a complete set in 2003. This budget two-disc set offers a plausible greatest-hits selection from the cycle, with the four most famous sonatas ("Pathétique," "Moonlight," "Waldstein," and "Appassionata"), plus the Piano Sonata No. 26 in E flat major, Op. 81a, "Les Adieux"; the short Piano Sonata No. 25 in G major, Op. 79 (which apparently doesn't rate space on the cover, whereas the Piano Sonata No. 15 in D major, Op. 28, the "Pastoral," is listed but does not appear!); and the mighty Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat major, Op. 106 "Hammerklavier." It's an effective selection, and, although there are other strong Beethoven cycles, this collection can be recommended to the newcomer as a first purchase of Beethoven's piano sonatas. There are keyboard pounders who find greater drama in Beethoven, technicians who clarify the passagework to a greater degree in sonatas that are as genuinely difficult two centuries after the fact as when they came on the scene, and intellectuals (Charles Rosen, if this is your bag) who take the sonatas apart in more detail as they play them, but perhaps none can combine these talents as well as Kovacevich. These two discs brim with excitement, for Kovacevich finds the audience-pleasing strain in each piece. The "Appassionata" and "Waldstein" strain with forward momentum; Op. 79 is a flawlessly intricate miniature that could put one in mind of atomic structure; and the "Moonlight" is a sequence of Romantic mood pieces with a demonic finale. And the "Hammerklavier" captures the real storm-the-barricades-of-the-impossible quality of that work as few other performances do. The CDs reveal various kinds of introductory material when inserted into a computer. An excellent choice for the first-time buyer and for Beethoven sonata collectors who haven't opted for the full set.

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