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Brahms brings balm

Friday, June 12, 2009
12:31 PM

Hampstead and Highgate aren t short of star residents – some of whom throw themselves into community life, some of whom don t. But one who does is the internationally celebrated pianist Stephen Kovacevich, who not only turns up at local concerts – you ll

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Hampstead and Highgate aren't short of star residents - some of whom throw themselves into community life, some of whom don't.

But one who does is the internationally celebrated pianist Stephen Kovacevich, who not only turns up at local concerts - you'll spot him trying to look invisible at the back - but also has been known to play them.

And he's playing this Sunday afternoon, along with cellist Gemma Rosefield and other musicians in a tea concert at Hampstead Parish Church to raise money for the Marie Curie Hospice in Lyndhurst Gardens, Hampstead.

The 68-year-old is a near-neighbour of the hospice and, as he says, "always being stopped in the street and asked directions to it, so it has some presence in my life".

In fact, he's lived in Hampstead for more than 20 years and, if you ask him why, he'll tell you it's the trees and the Globe Tennis Club by Belsize Park tube station.

But he was born in California and originally came to England not for trees or tennis but to study with Dame Myra Hess.

That was in 1958. He was 18. And he had targeted the Dame because her speciality (like his) was late Beethoven - an area of keyboard repertory that, he says, "she played with that interior quality the Germans calls 'innig'".

"Late Beethoven has 'innig' but it's rare in music, rarer still in a performer. You either understand and need it, or it's a foreign language. She understood it."

If you know Kovacevich as a performer, you'll appreciate what Hess passed on to him.

He is a master of the powerful pianissimo: music delivered at a whisper-soft dynamic level but with resolute intensity.

It was Dame Myra's hallmark too - although her stock as a musician doesn't seem to stand so high these days.

"I don't think England got the best out of her," says Kovacevich, "largely because of the war and those concerts at the National Gallery that made her so very famous - an institution like the Queen Mother - but on show-business terms that meant people here stopped taking her seriously.

"The UK critics ripped her to pieces, without reflecting on the things in her that were amazing.

"In the US it was different, she was genuinely admired. And that's why I decided not to go to Juilliard but to come to London to be her student."

So why did he stay?

"Oh, London in the 60s was a fantastic place to be a young musician. There was so much energy, so many great talents emerging. And a lot of us lived at one time or another in an insane place called the London Music Club in Holland Park.

"It was a sort of hotel, owned bizarrely by the Church of England until they had to sell it, and just so much fun with everyone being together, eating together, practising around the clock.

"I was there for four years in my 20s and they were some of the best times of my life - never to be forgotten."

One thing that music history won't forget from those times was Kovacevich's debut at the Wigmore Hall, which was by all accounts spectacular.

He was just 20 and he played Beethoven's Diabelli Variations - one of the pillars of keyboard repertoire that have remained central to his performing life ever since.

He's just brought out a second recording on the Onyx label.

Kovacevich says he practises the Diabelli almost every day

"It's become a constant observance that I actually look forward to. When I was in my 20s, I needed a nurse to play this music: technically I found it such a nightmare. But now it's a friend, we have a better relationship."

Kovacevich's relationship with whatever he plays tends to be long-term and constant, focusing on the core repertory - Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Mozart, Chopin - for which he's recognised worldwide.

His discs of the Beethoven and Schubert sonatas and of Brahms' 1st Piano Concerto are among the best available: profound and thoughtful statements that reflect what now amounts to more than 40 years of scrutiny.

And although they haven't been untroubled years - he's weathered various emotional and physical problems that have threatened his career - his growth as an artist has been steady, solid, almost to the point of stealth.

"Living with the same music for so long, things do change in how I play it, but not in the Hollywood way of sudden revelation.

"The changes come by themselves. I feel like a reporter, taking note: someone who turns up for work and the data comes through."

More dramatic are the changes that Kovacevich's name has undergone over the years.

A complicated family background meant that he was born Kovacevich (with a Croatian father), aquired the name Bishop when his mother remarried and launched himself as Stephen Bishop - only to find that he shared that name with a pop singer "whose groupies would turn up at hotels where I was staying and be reduced to tears when they discovered it was me not him".

So, to avoid confusion, he became Bishop-Kovacevich but then dropped the former altogether, acknowledging a strength of attachment to his Slavic roots.

"They are an advantage," he says. "With certain repertory - Chopin Mazurkas for example - I think very few pianists really understand the rhythm unless they have Slavic blood.

"And I know that doesn't make sense but it's how it feels. Horowitz had the blood, so did Rubinstein, and they knew what to do with Chopin."

For the Hampstead concert, it's a matter of knowing what to with Brahms - whose Piano Quintet shares top billing with the promised attraction of a cream tea.

In Kovacevich's reckoning, the Scherzo of that Quintet is "one of the most exacting things anyone ever wrote: nothing else in Brahms turns the themometer up so high".

"It's not exactly one of his cream tea pieces - but that's why it's special."

It's being played here for a special purpose. Anyone who knows the Marie Curie Hospice - and I know it well, because my mother died there last year - knows it as a truly admirable institution.

And the impressive service it provides to people at their most distressed, destroyed and vulnerable relies on public giving.

Hospices are charities that easily slip off your radar - until crisis hits and you discover, suddenly and forcefully, how valuable they are.

So please support this concert.

You get one of the world's leading pianists on the doorstep, playing world-class chamber music with outstanding colleagues. And you get a cream tea. This is not a burden. It's a must-do.

o Stephen Kovacevich, Gemma Rosefield and Friends is at Hampstead Parish Church in Church Row, Hampstead, on Sunday at 3.30pm. Tickets at the door or on 020-7853 3415. Free entry for under-23s, courtesy of Cavatina Trust.

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