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Meeting of minds

Stephen Kovacevich and friends play
excellent Mozart and Brahms,


Exquisite sonorities and the meeting of artistic minds across two generations ensured a dramatic and enthralling climax to this year's Hampstead and Highgate Festival, a chamber concert of Mozart and Brahms given by 'Stephen Kovacevich and Friends'. The concert, at the capacity-filled Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead, London NW3, UK, began with a magical account of Mozart's E flat Piano Quartet, with the compelling artistry of Stephen Kovacevich, a Hampstead resident, in partnership with a superb team of rising young string stars, violinist Clio Gould, violist Lawrence Powers and cellist Gemma Rosefield, who brought power in the outer movements and beguiling lyricism in the central Larghetto. Here the silences impregnating the poignant dialogues of piano and strings were laden with emotion, pianissimo textures allowing Mozart's inner chromatic lines to emerge with delicacy, and the piano's melodic line imbued with telling pathos as Kovacevich leaned expressively into each rising gesture. The final Rondo sparkled yet unusual here was the free association whereby new ideas just evolved seamlessly out of each other leading to the chromatic intensity of the final episode before the ebullient concerto-esque conclusion. Kovacevich's pearl-like touch, his incredible nuance of expression and tonal balance was well matched by the alert string playing.

Stephen Kovacevich
Stephen Kovacevich

Kovacevich and Lawrence Powers were joined by the mezzo-soprano Yvonne Howard for the centrepiece of the evening, Brahms's Two Songs Op 91. They were composed for Brahms' lifelong friend Joseph Joachim, who performed in Hampstead Town Hall just over a century ago, and thus represent a connection with the Festival. While the second song is a simple strophic lullaby written for Joachim's first child in 1864, the first song in the published sequence, Gestillte Sehnsucht, a Rückert setting, was in fact composed twenty years afterwards. It is by far the more complex and subtle work, a masterpiece which ranks with Brahms's late chamber works as peak of inspiration.

In the first stanza Rückert's nocturnal nature imagery cast its sonorous spell, highlighting all the more the outpouring of angst and impassioned harmonies in the effulsive central stanza of desire and restless longing, with a potent sense of dissolution in the return to initial material in the final stanza. Yvonne Howard's warm timbre well suited the flowing vocal line enlaced by the viola's contrapuntal weaving, but occasionally they came out of sync while Kovacevich's delicate piano support sometimes seemed just a bit too reticent. The steamy mood was released into the sweeter tunefulness of the Geistliches Wiegenlied, in which each increasingly chromatic verse is interspersed by a touching, unresolved viola and piano refrain which resolves in the final bars.

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Copyright © 31 May 2003 Malcolm Miller, London, UK


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