Martha turns out for her ex

It was the 75th birthday concert of Stephen Kovacevich. Who better to play four-hand with him than former wife and mother of his child, Martha Argerich. Erica Worth, Editor of Pianist magazine, tells us it was a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Stephen Kovacevich & Martha Argerich, Wigmore Hall, 2 November 2012

Last night, at London’s Wigmore Hall, Martha Argerich joined ex-partner Stephen Kovacevich for a ‘once in a lifetime’ concert. They played Debussy’s En blanc et noir followed Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances.

Even if these two giants of the piano are such very different pianists, it was apparent from the outset that they go back a long way (Kovacevich tells Jessica Duchen in the October/November issue of Pianist that they are indeed soulmates – and it shows). It was the way they walked on to the stage smiling at each other, the way they waited for each other to begin, the way they gave each other knowing looks throughout, how they knew to make the two-piano writing merge as one, and then the way that they laughed and chatted when exiting the stage. This was intimate music-making.

I noticed that Argerich used the services of pianist and long time friend Alberto Portugheis to turn her pages (I didn’t recognise Kovacevich’s page turner). It seems that even the page-turners were part of this very personal concert (and how important a good page-turner is, too, I may add).

It was in the Symphonic Dances that they shone the brightest. The opening was fiery, earthy and rhythmic – each pianist producing a myriad of colour from the perfectly in-tune Steinway pianos. This was Kovacevich’s first performance of the work (Argerich having played it countless times) and it was great to see him let himself go.

They were having fun! The Andante was tender and heartbreaking and the final Allegro vivace a sheer roller coaster of excitement (not to mention quick!).

martha argerich erica worth

After the interval – during which I manage to have a two-minute chat with Argerich while she was searching for her missing espresso (‘Stephen’s having tea though’ she told me) – Kovacevich came on to the stage to perform a work that has always been close to his heart, the Schubert D960 Sonata. There might have been the odd fluff here and there, but who really cares when we know we are in the presence of a great artist. Kovacevich gave us a real sense of the overall structure, he let the music speak without gushing or pulling around with tempos (as so many tend to do with this work) – and because of this subtle handing of Schubert’s late masterpiece, the poignancy was even more acute.

Martha Argerich joins Stephen Kovacevich to celebrate his 75th birthday at Wigmore Hall
(c) Simon Jay Price

There was just one encore: Kovacevich called out into the audience for violinist Alina Ibragimova to join him on the stage – and they played a serene but heartfelt Vocalise.

(c) Erica Worth/Slipped Disc

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  • I was page turning for Stephen – thanks for the mention! It was amazing to be between the fire of them both! What a special evening. I met Stephen in 2000 while playing to him at a master class in Dartington and he became a wonderful friend and mentor ever since.

  • It’s hardly a ‘once in a lifetime’ as they’ve played together countless times.
    Actually I think in the same venue for SK’s 70th

    This gushing hyperbole is very tiring !

  • Deeply touching evening. The solicitous way Argerich gave Kovacevich encouraging smiles and glances made him throw caution to the winds and give his all. In the Schubert he was not helped by a dodgy pedal and an instrument which may have been groaning a little from the effects of the Rachmaninov beforehand but all in all, here was a master at work with genuine love and respect for the composer. Utterly memorable.

  • I read a story that all had not been well at the afternoon rehearsal, prompting a decision (by whom?) to scrap the broadcast. In fact this was good for SK – the reviews have been kind, perhaps prompted by the nature of the occasion, but the third and fourth movements of his Schubert displayed a sketchiness that made it a difficult listen.

    One small correction: SK has performed the Symphonic Dances before. In his Arts Desk interview with David Nice, he said he played it recently with Zlata Chochieva.

    • Thanks for the correction, Jonathan Z. You are indeed right. I have looked at Tom Service’s programme notes – and yes, SK tells him he had not played Symphonic Dances before this autumn. At least it’s pretty new to his repertoire!

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