On Friday the 13th I had the good luck to hear a piano recital presented by City Recital Hall. Curiously, the only publicity I’d noticed for it was an e-newsletter I received, which sent me diving for my credit card. Advertising via the conventional outlets was either incredibly discreet or simply non-existent. But maybe the people at Angel Place know what they’re doing: when you’re presenting the kind of artist who impresses not through glamour and hype but through commanding pianism and profound musicality, perhaps the word will simply get around. In any case, although the upper gallery wasn’t opened, the rest of the hall was respectably full, and not just on the keyboard side.
The artist in question was Stephen Kovacevich – and I confess to being a fan. In recent years I’ve been known to put my hand up for interstate pre-concert talks on the grounds that he will be the soloist. Which points, among other things, to the fact that a Sydney appearance was long overdue. (I think his last visit here was for the concert in 2005 when Yannick Nézet-Séguin jumped for Maazel.)
He was playing Bach, Schumann and Beethoven, with the Diabelli Variations as the program culmination and highlight. From where I sat the recital got better and better as it went along, by the time I’d heard the tenderly shaped Schumann and the muscular conception of the Beethoven I was even more a fan than I was when it began. But in saying that I’m also admitting that I found the Bach strangely disappointing.
Who am I to fault a great musician and pianist like Stephen Kovacevich? Well perhaps I can’t when, as a colleague said, his Bach convinced on its own terms. It was intensely musical – true – but it didn’t quite convince me on Bach’s terms. A French ouverture in D major: this alone calls for a more dashing interpretation, one that calls to mind harpsichord flourishes and dancing articulations even as it exploits the singing potential of the piano. What we heard was more ruminative, almost too private in view of the rhetorical clues offered by key and musical gestures.
But ultimately this is a quibble: I’d happily rock up to hear the program all over again.
And that would be?
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Partita IV in D, BWV828
Robert Schumann (1810–1856)
Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood), Op.15
Von fremden Ländern und Menschen (Of Foreign Lands and People)
Kuriose Geschichte (A Curious Story)
Hasche-Mann (Blind Man’s Bluff)
Bittendes Kind (Pleading Child)
Glückes genug (Happy Enough)
Wichtige Begebenheit (An Important Event)
Am Kamin (At the Fireside)
Ritter vom Steckenpferd (Knight of the Hobbyhorse)
Fast zu ernst (Almost too serious)
Kind im Einschlummern (Child Falling Asleep)
Der Dichter spricht (The Poet Speaks)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
33 Variations on a waltz by Anton Diabelli, Op.120
[And here you can imagine, if you will, 33 lines of tempo indications, which I’m not going to type out here.]
I’ve taken the trouble to list the program in detail because the presenter didn’t. The program sheet, such as it was, looked like this.
Now, believe it or not, I have no problem with a simple program sheet, listing the pieces, sans notes. But when that sheet contains minimalist publicity titles and nothing more about the music I get cross: that a major venue in a major city presenting a major artist should so neglect its audience is embarrassing as well one mammoth missed opportunity.
When there are no program notes it’s even more essential that the program listing contain all the necessary details. So much can be gleaned from these: the key gives advance orientation of mode (and in baroque music, character); composer dates help place the work historically; opus numbers suggest when in the composer’s career the work was written; a formal title will convey useful facts such as the kind of theme and the number of variations; translations are a courtesy; and, above all, movement headings aid navigation as the music progresses and, in the case of a piece like Kinderszenen, are absolutely essential to appreciating what the composer is doing and following the emotional journey.
Perhaps it was thought that the audience would be almost entirely piano connoisseurs, familiar with these three works from the standard repertoire and so not needing that kind of detail in their “order of service”. But I disagree. I’ve studied the Bach as a piano student, I’ve played the Schumann for pleasure and I’ve written (at length) about the Beethoven, and still I would have appreciated having a detailed program listing. No one’s memory is perfect, and in the Schumann I could put names to only three of the miniatures. Meanwhile, what about the poor soul who might not be familiar the music?!
In any case, piano recital audiences in Sydney are more inclined to buy program books than nearly any other kind of concert audience – clearly they seek more information, not less. So if there’s one kind of concert where it’s worth going to the trouble of publishing a “proper” program it’s the kind that took place on Friday night.