About the album
With the issue of this luxury box set, Stephen Kovacevich enters the ranks of the elite group of great pianists who have recorded the complete sonatas of Beethoven. The project – a tribute both to the pianist’s superb artistry and the far-sighted A&R policy of EMI Classics – has taken ten years to accomplish, and individual discs from the series have already garnered awards and critical raves from all sections of the music press. Now, with the recording of the three earliest sonatas of Opus 2 (1795) and a masterful re-recording of the final sonata Opus 111 (1822), the project has reached its triumphant conclusion. EMI is proud to issue the results in a sumptuous nine-disc set.
When EMI approached Stephen Kovacevich ten years ago to be (as he puts it) "one of the big boys" and record all thirty-two Beethoven sonatas, he knew that he was taking on one of the greatest challenges that any pianist can face. Especially since – as he now confesses – he only knew eight of the sonatas at the time, and that didn’t include the monumentally difficult Hammerklavier Sonata. But his response called forth all his courage and laconic wit. "I knew I wouldn’t be able to look in my shaving mirror the next morning if I refused," he says. His powerful performances have since won him several honours including a Gramophone Award, a Diapason D’Or and a Grammy Award nomination. Of Opus 110, Gramophone Magazine wrote: "Few pianists today – not Brendel, not Ashkenazy, not Serkin – can free themselves of self-awareness enough to find the tender simplicity of the opening of Beethoven’s Opus 110. Kovacevich can. mesmeric… effervescent."
Stephen Kovacevich was born in Los Angeles in 1940 to Yugoslavian parents, and made his debut at the age of 11. (Curiously, as a child he thought Beethoven an "awful, horrible, loud and noisy composer"). He moved to London at the age of 18 to study with Dame Myra Hess, and it was only when he studied Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations that he first learned to love the composer’s music. Since then he has established himself as both one of the greatest exponents of the classical and romantic repertoire, and as a renowned conductor/director from the keyboard.
Beethoven’s thirty-two sonatas (1795-1822) span a major part of his creative life, and move from a realm of Haydn-influenced classicism to a world of revolutionary harmonic and structural experimentation. Kovacevich has frequently been praised for his ability to negotiate the extremes of the composer’s music, and to meld a romantic, almost improvisational spontaneity with the more classical demands of structure. "I learned from Klemperer that architecture is alive," he says. "It’s not a concept, it’s absolutely alive. But I also need wildness. I need the wild side when I play and when I listen." He is also not afraid of taking technical risks, and says he practised certain necessary techniques (like the fiendish octave glissandi in the Waldstein Sonata) "until there was blood on the keyboard."
One of the first recordings Kovacevich made for the series was of the final sonata, Op 111, and in a neat piece of symmetry, his last recording was a reconsideration of that work. "First I reacted to the ecstatic quality of the music, the love, the ardent conviction," he says. "Now I think that Beethoven questions everything: even ecstasy is questioned and nothing is sure. I think Beethoven is saying, ‘Maybe…. Let’s just hope!’’’
At least one thing need not be called in to question: Kovacevich’s complete set of Beethoven Sonatas is sure to stand the test of time.
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