Bela Kovacs has been hailed by critics and public alike as the finest Hungarian clarinetist of his time. Not surprisingly, he is one of the foremost interpreters of Hungarian clarinet repertory, particularly the works of Bartók and Dohnányi, as well as of contemporary compatriots like Ferenc Farkas, Miklós Kocsar, Endre Szervánszky, and Zsolt Durkó. But Kovacs is equally compelling in a broad range of other music, including works by Mozart, Beethoven, Weber, Donizetti, Brahms, Ravel, and countless others. Kovacs also plays jazz, as evidenced by the perky Gershwin takeoff for clarinet and piano, After You, Mr. Gershwin. Kovacs must be credited not only with performance of that work, but he is also the composer of it and has written other works for clarinet, including the Homage to J.S. Bach, for solo clarinet. Kovacs has mainly recorded for Hungaroton and Naxos, although some of his early performances are available in anthologies on reissue labels like Delta and Laserlight.
Bela Kovacs was born in Tatabánya, Hungary, on May 1, 1937. His first advanced studies were at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, where his teachers included clarinetist and arranger/music editor György Balassa.
The exceptionally gifted Kovacs became a member of the Hungarian State Opera Orchestra when he was 19 and still a student at the Liszt Academy. He eventually became the principal clarinetist and served in that capacity until he left the orchestra in 1981.
In 1961 Kovacs co-founded the Budapest Chamber Ensemble, a group he was active in until 1971. In 1964 he was awarded the Liszt Prize. Kovacs joined the faculty at the Liszt Academy in 1969 and was given a professorship there in 1975. He later taught at the University of Music and Dramatic Arts, Graz, and at the Conservatorio di Musica, Udine. In the 1970s Kovacs' first solo recordings were issued by Hungaroton. His most important recording from his early years was a highly praised 1976 LP of the Brahms clarinet sonatas, with pianist Dezsõ Ránki (reissued on CD in 1997).
He continued recording for Hungaroton, turning out such efforts as the acclaimed 1986 Mozart Concerto for Clarinet, K. 622, and the 1994 Five Movements for clarinet, strings, and harpsichord by Kocsar. In the new century Kovacs remained active as a teacher and clarinet soloist. His later recordings include the 2005 Naxos CD containing the Donizetti Clarinet Concertino and other Donizetti works.