Play your shoe-size, not your age

A tad hung-over this morning after a chocolate gateau of a birthday concert last night. Stephen Kovacevich turned 70 and the Wigmore Hall was out in force to celebrate. As Stephen put it, succinctly: “Nobody wants to be 70, but if you have to be, this is the way to do it.”

Stephen and his team put on the glad rags, took off the brakes, and soared from 0 to 100 in moments. This was flying-display music, loop-the-loop bedazzlement, raw and wild and tender – Formula One playing in which the terror that a car wreck would happen any moment added to the adrenaline of joy that, in the main, it didn’t. Pure emotion, sincere and at the same time completely irreverent, with never a hint of pomposity or self-importance – that’s Stephen all over for you, and his friends gave as good as they got.

The concert (packed to the nines) opened with the sort of performance that most gigs would be fortunate to conclude with: the Brahms Piano Quintet, starring our birthday boy and the Belcea Quartet – a purple Brahms patch with a Gypsy edge. A few rough moments, but who cared? The slow movement was deep velvet gorgeousness and in the scherzo they were in the flow and flying at full throttle.

Next up in the Brahms & Liszt first part, Stephen and Martha’s latest protegee and Borletti-Buitoni Trust wonder, Khatia Buniatishvili, 23, from Tblisi, Georgia. Liszt B minor Sonata – completely mesmerising, redefining the whole meaning of ‘virtuosity’. There wasn’t a safe moment in it: by turns theoretically too fast, too loud and too soft, yet throughout completely, hynotically overwhelming. There’s no point playing Liszt if you’re going to be safe about it, and Khatia seemed to turn herself inside out, giving more than you would imagine one person could ever give and be able to stand at the end. (She also proved that you don’t need to be able to see what you’re doing to play like that – I was sorely tempted to pass the poor girl my hairslide.) We hear she’s been signed up by Sony Classical, so this looks to be the start of an auspicious career.

A bit of a digression now… The Hungarian aspect of the entire concert grabbed my throat, as Hungarian things tend to, but as Khatia cast her spell, I found myself undergoing two rather odd experiences. First, there’s something about Khatia’s profile, and her hair in her eyes, that looks somewhat similar to mine at that same age (a while ago), and though I could never get near the Liszt Sonata I had a distinct impression that somehow I was looking back at my younger self while I watched her…and then she catapulted me off to Budapest and I saw the entire story of Hungarian Dances unfolding like a ballet within the Liszt Sonata, where I think it must have been lurking all along and perhaps even originated if I’d only noticed. (Any choreographers out there?)

I’m not sure what state the piano must have been in by the time she finished, but the interval was somewhat extended while they set up the stage for the Bartok Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. Now Stephen was joined by his ex-partner Martha Argerich – not someone we’re very accustomed to seeing at the Wigmore – and percussionists Colin Currie and Sam Walton. I always feel that this sonata is what Mozart might have written had he been born as Bartok, and it’s a shimmering, earthy journey, a Hungarian heat-haze full of pepper and lake-surfing and mysterious distant night-images across the plains. Some interesting moments of musical chairs at the outset while they got the piano stools sorted – Stephen sits so low at the keyboard that if he sat any lower he’d be underneath it. And on came the Martha magic…

But now there arrived, too, the inevitable car-wreck of this musical Formula One: and the victim was Martha’s page-turner. If there is one thing more scary than being a journalist around Martha Argerich, it must be being her page-turner. The poor guy – he got lost, turned over two pages at once, looked utterly unnerved [tip for future: the thing to do if you’re turning for a two-pianos concert is to note what the other pianist’s page-turner is doing as usually they play from the same edition – if in doubt, co-ordinate…]. Having been on the receiving end of Martha’s withering stares on one memorable occasion in Verbier, I wouldn’t have liked to be in his shoes. But the music steamed ahead, unimpeded.

Last but not least, house manager David King had his moment of glory – after providing an excellent warm-up comedy turn (roll over, Graham Norton), telling us all what to do and not do – in spite of which, two mobiles did go off at the quietest bit of the Liszt – he took to the piano himself and led the audience in a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday.

Stephen & Martha too

And so, downstairs to party in the Bechstein Room, where Stephen seemed a very happy bunny indeed and a film crew brought in by his and Martha’s daughter, Stephanie, was busy preserving the occasion.

Stephen & the Contis

We should all be so lucky as to reach our eighth decade still playing our shoe-size, not our age: Stephen’s ever-new edge of raw and mystical wonder is as great as ever. I hope he enjoyed his birthday party as much as the rest of us did.

The concert is due for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 25 October and the Brahms and Bartok are intended for a Wigmore Live release in due course. Here’s another review, from David Nice at The Arts Desk.

(Top pic: the birthday boy. Middle pic: Stephen with Martha in the background. Bottom pic: Stephen with Tom Conti and Kara Wilson. Photos by your blogger.)

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