I didn't leave the dental appointment today (November 22, 2005) 'til 5:30 PM and Stephen Kovacevic's master class was to begin at 7PM. No time to run home, just straight from UBC campus to the Vancouver Academy of Music. Of course I was far to early, but I would have been late had I tried to get home and back in time.
Odd, how I imagined that there would be line-ups to see such a major figure in the piano world teach and hear up and coming young pianists perform. Alas, there were no line-ups and no standing room only, just barely enough to fill about third of the Academy's main hall.
As I arrived and stuck my head inside the hall another master class was ending. The subject; a Brahms Violin sonata and ultimately interesting information about violin technique of years gone by. Many players like Paganini, it seems did not use a chin rest. This seems to be a modern convention. Playing with the violin held lower on the body seems to solve some technical problems as well.
Of course there were no videos or film in those days, barely cameras existed and earlier all we have is artists sketches. So we rely on their eyes to tell us what they saw and how it was done.
This type of master class, one that is open to the public, is particularly difficult for the student. Lessons are private things and it is where you tear your work apart with your teacher and reasemble it. Master classes with fellow students are really practice performances in front of a known friendly audience. But here, each student brings a peice of music which is fully preppared but needs polishing or some changes in what is almost the same thing as a private lesson. The difference is that this one is open to the public. So I was very impressed with the students who performed. Each one of them aquitted themselves with finesse and professionalism.
Maestro Kovacevich is in an equally difficult position because he has to say something that will help each student and improve the proformance without trodding over the work the student's teacher has already done or re-doing the work the student has done. Maestro Kovacevich did this with aplomb. With each student he found something which made an audible improvement in their performances. From the standpoint of the audience, what Maestro Kovacevich had to say would certainly inform in an easy to understand manner without technical jargon.
If you think this is easy, it is not!
First off, Maestro Lee Kum Sing invited the audience to move forward so no microphone would be needed. I took this as an open invitation to sit in the front row in the exact spot where I could see the pianists hands at eye level. If you are a pianist, a piano teacher or at all interested in piano technique this is the absolutely best place to obvserve.
Through the evening we heard the first movement of the Beethoven Waldstein Sonata, first and second movemet of the Beethoven opus 110 sonata, the set of variations in f minor by Haydn and a Schubert impromtu. The standard of this playing is very high indeed! None of the students need be embarrased by anthing they put forward. But, I will not critique their playing because It would be completely unethical to critique a performance that was put forward as a work in progress. Enough said about the individual performance.
What did staand out was Maestro Kovacevich's ability to get to the heart of the performance and show the student how they could enhance what they were already doing. Mostly his message was for the performer to keep in his or her mind exactly what he was trying to say and keep it consistant. Areas of dissagreement will always be present, and expected but understanding your own view of he music in front of you enhances the performance.
Not all outstanding performers are cut out to be teaches, indeed some of the most tallented players are the worst teachers. Not so in Maestro's Kovacevich's case. He showed outstanding insite into each piece a of music as well as a profound respect for the student's own view of the work. Maestro Kovacevich has performed all but one of the selections.
All in all, this was worth going straight from the dentist's chair after a filling and other work, not eating and going straight to the recital hall for the evening. Hunger be damned! Chances to observe instruction and playing like this are rare.
MaestroKovacevich has recently finished recording all the Beethoven Piano Sonatas for EMI. In the past he has recorded the main body of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas and the Concertos for Phillips some of which are again available as a 6 CD set Phillps 00289 475 6319 “Stephene Kovacevich Plays Beethoven” And new this month is ”Stephen Kovacevich Plays Brahms”. His Variations on a Theme by Handel are quite simply breathtaking. I owned them on vinyl and now again on CD. However, I won't be re-purchase them again in any format until I can buy them remastered from the original superior analogue recordings at DVA sampling rates.
I own both recordings of the Beethoven last three piano sonatas on both the older Phillips recordings and the newer EMI releases. It is almost impossible to say which is the better. Perhaps, by a hair the award goes to the eary rendition of the opus 109 Sonata but probably only because I have played it myself and know it intimately and I found a touch more passion in the earlier recording. I wouldn't turn down either were someone to give them to me as a gift. Kovacevich's Brahms is stunning. He backs away from neither the dramatic nor the soft quiet intimate passages.
I guess you know by now how highly I regard this pianist. He is certainly among the most important of his generation. His playing has remained at a consistantly high level since I first hear him with the Vancouver Symphony in the 1960's playing the Beethoven 4th Piano Concerto. I was not a big Beethoven fan back then but Stephen Bishop (as he was called back then) convinced me.
If you clicked on the links to the recordings on EMI and the ones on Phillips you will likely be struck by the similarity of the cover art concept. I had never quite imagined Stephen Kovacevich as black and white! Now I wonder who is trying to ride who's coat tails and promote recordings that are almost two decades old. That isn't to say that they aren't good recordings. I wonder if they consider thsi "cross promotion".