REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Stephen Kovacevich at Ryedale Festival

Stephen Kovacevich: “Hearing him in solo recital was a rare opportunity”

Ryedale Festival: Stephen Kovacevich, Duncombe Park, July 28

THIS was the second of two remarkable, and remarkably different, piano recitals during Ryedale’s second week.

Stephen Kovacevich will celebrate his 82nd birthday in October. He has been a fixture on the musical scene for 60 years and has lived in Hampstead for many years, so he is practically one of us.

Hearing him in solo recital was a rare opportunity, since these days you are more likely to hear him in chamber music or duetting with his long-time friend Martha Argerich (now there’s a thought for a future festival).

His programme opened with Berg’s single-movement sonata, continued with Beethoven’s penultimate sonata, Op 110 in A flat (not the advertised Op 109) and ended with Schubert’s final sonata, D.960 in B flat.

The piano sonata was far from being Berg’s earliest work – he finished it in 1909 at the age of 24 – but he called Op 1. In it he kindles the dying embers of romanticism, showing himself wrestling with the (for him) magnetic tug of atonality.

Kovacevich presented the theme and its offshoots with a clarity it hardly deserved, so that it was possible to pick out some logic in Berg’s machinations. Whether the rubato he employed was supposed to be part of the original deal is open to question but it certainly helped this listener. The work would not have been many people’s choice of opener, on either side of the platform, but it worked here.

Nevertheless, moving back to the purer tonality of Beethoven came as something of a relief. Kovacevich’s last-minute change of sonata – excused by a recent bout of Covid – was something of a mystery, because his opening movement was wayward. Marked ‘con amabilità’ (lovingly), it was certainly caressed, but it also rambled and some of the runs were too fast for their own clarity.

Kovacevich came back into better focus with the scherzo, which was percussive to the point of anger in its C major sections. The trio was hardly less forceful and he coped admirably with its abrupt leaps.

The finale is a tricky mixture – and sounded it. Its slow opening and elegiac first arioso led smoothly into the first fugue, which was impressively delivered, with special clarity in the left hand. The second arioso was less comfortable and led into an aggressive second fugue, untidily banged out in places, even though it ended convincingly enough. This was not so much faltering technique as the idiosyncrasies that come with age, undeniably reminiscent of Horowitz in his later years.

We looked for recompense in Schubert after the interval. It came, gradually at first, reaching full flowering in a finale that was by far his best movement of the evening. The sonata, for all its use of the major key, is clouded with the darkness of Schubert’s knowledge that he had not long to live (he died two months later, at the age of 31).

Its otherwise soothing melodies also conveyed doubt here, in the dark, low trill near the start, for example. There was a well-worked acceleration when the main theme was repeated, but the first movement ended in a beautiful calm.

The dotted rhythms of the Andante were almost Baroque, but its answering theme was too hasty, lacking nobility, even if the later key-changes were negotiated persuasively. The Scherzo was a little rough at the edges, but it was a warm-up for a finale whose drama dazzled. This was the Kovacevich we had been waiting for and it did not disappoint in any way.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Coco Tomita & Simon Callaghan, Ryedale Festival

Coco Tomita and Simon Callaghan: “A duo that seems bound to endure”

Ryedale Festival: Coco Tomita & Simon Callaghan, Duncombe Park, July 28

MORNING concerts are always a special treat at Ryedale and this one was no exception. Coco Tomita won the strings section of the BBC Young Musician competition last year and is still in her teens, but in her programme of Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Poulenc, she combined the enthusiasm of youth with a maturity well beyond her years. Simon Callaghan was her ardent piano partner; they were well matched.

Callaghan’s staccato piano in the opening movement of Mozart’s F major Violin Sonata, K.376 underlined Tomita’s rhythmic zest, which she tempered in the unusually restrained development section.

She did not hog the spotlight either in the Andante, content to accompany when needed. The pair were well attuned to Mozart’s wit in the finale, with its rapidly changing colours and false endings.

Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir d’un Lieu Cher, which was inspired by Brailovo, the estate of his patroness Nadezhda von Meck, marked a complete change of mood. Its opening Méditation, in D minor, has a melody that Callaghan enunciated boldly in the extended piano prologue, before Coco mined its pathos to the full, with some notably sweet tone at the top of the range.

The moto perpetuo Scherzo, also in the minor, was balanced with a smooth major-key Trio, before the famous salon-style tune in the closing Mélodie – closely related to several Elgar pieces in similar style – was given tasteful treatment. Here the duo could have afforded to be a little more expansive.

Poulenc had notorious difficulties in composing his Violin Sonata, discarding two attempts before settling on this one from 1943. It has – for him – a deeply romantic melody in the opening Allegro Con Fuoco, in which Coco was suitably soulful, but there was little she could do about the later nervy passages that cast it adrift.

The low-lying Intermezzo found her developing a lovely line and an intriguing dialogue with the piano. The will-o’-the-wisp finale was pure Poulenc, with the two instruments chasing each other in and around several changes in tempo.

Their Debussy encore was equally stylish. This is a duo that seems bound to endure – and Coco is set fair to be another young performer who needs only a single name.

 Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Isata Kanneh-Mason at Ryedale Festival, 25/7/21

Isata Kanneh-Mason: “There is considerable brainpower behind Isata’s virtuosity. All she needs now is to step back a little from signposting what composers are saying,” opines Martin Dreyer. Picture: Robin Clewley

Ryedale Festival: Isata Kanneh-Mason, Duncombe Park, Helmsley, July 25

MANY of us first encountered Isata (‘Eye-suh-tuh’) at Ryedale three summers ago when she made a powerful impression partnering her cello-playing brother, Sheku, at Castle Howard.

Still only 25, she is striking out more and more as a solo pianist. This was the second, late-afternoon programme she gave at Duncombe Park, with sonatas by Mozart and Beethoven framing a Chopin ballade and Gubaidulina’s Chaconne.

Mozart’s Sonata K.457 in C minor dates from 1784 and was written only three weeks before the ‘Hunt’ string quartet. It was published with the Fantasia in the same key, which fascinatingly was given later in the festival.

Its key often denotes passion in Mozart, so Isata was entirely within her rights to hammer out the opening arpeggio, not least because it forms the basis for the whole development section. But she positively melted into the major-key second theme, a lovely contrast.

There was much delicately delayed ornamentation in the slow movement, which allowed its melody to glow, reminding us of Beethoven’s allusion to it in his Pathétique sonata. Although she did not shirk the anger in the finale, she tempered it with regret by allowing it to breathe when rests allowed.

The temperate opening of Chopin’s Second Ballade belied the thunder to come. Here we had no mere storm, more of a hurricane. She generated huge power, especially in her left hand, and did not hold back.

Gubaidulina’s substantial score, full of dark colours, often demands a heavy bass line against rapid passagework in the right hand: Isata was equal to every challenge. But when tenderness was needed – the composer’s much-lauded “spiritual renewal” – her fingers twinkled over the keys. We could have done with a touch more of such subtlety.

 She attacked Beethoven’s First Sonata, in F minor, with its “skyrocket” theme echoing the opening of the Mozart, with considerable panache, but rather more aggressively than a hall this size really warranted. Still, her adrenalin was surely flowing freely and she was nothing if not bursting with ideas.

At least in the Adagio there was genuine serenity and almost the only sustained pianissimo of the programme. There were clean, crisp contrasts in the minuet and trio and dazzling motor-rhythm in the lightning finale.

There is considerable brainpower behind Isata’s virtuosity. All she needs now is to step back a little from signposting what composers are saying and allow her audience’s imagination freer rein.  But it was good to have her back.                                                                                                            

Review by Martin Dreyer