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Stephen Kovacevich (Piano)

Born: December 17, 1940 - Los Angeles, California, USA

The distinguished American pianist and conductor, Stephen Kovacevich, was born under the name Stephen Bishop to a Croatian father and an American mother. He began his piano studies with Lev Schorr in 1948, and in 1951, at the age of 11, made his public concert debut in San Francisco. When he was 14, he played Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major and Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. In 1959 he went to London on a scholarship to pursue his piano training with Dame Myra Hess. A highly influential teacher, Myra Hess recognised and encouraged Kovacevich's affinity with L.v. Beethoven's music, particularly the works from his late period.

In 1961 Stephen Kovacevich made a sensational European debut at the Wigmore Hall playing the Alban Berg Sonata, three J.S. Bach's Preludes and Fugues and L.v. Beethoven's Diabelli Variations. Following his London triumph, Kovacevich embarked on a brilliant international career. In 1967 he made his New York debut and since then he has toured Europe, the USA, the Far East, New Zealand and South America. He has appeared as a soloist with many of the major European and North American orchestras, as a recitalist, and as a chamber music artist. In 1975 he began to use the name Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich, adding his Croatian mother's surname, Kovacevich, just in time to avoid confusion with popular singer-songwriter Stephen Bishop. Finally, in 1991, he decided to use just the Croatian surname, using the name Stephen Kovacevich. His international reputation as a pianist has been built both on his concert appearances, renowned for their thoughtfulness and re-creative intensity, and on the highly acclaimed recordings he has made throughout his career. He is considered as one of the most searching interpreters, demonstrating an extraordinary command of an expansive repertoire. He has won unsurpassed admiration for his interpretations of the core classical repertoire, including J.S. Bach, W.A. Mozart (he has played all of W.A. Mozart's concertos), L.v. Beethoven, F. Schubert, Robert Schumann, E. Grieg, Johannes Brahms and Béla Bartók. But he is also an acclaimed interpreter of contemporary music, including Tippett's Piano Concerto and Richard Rodney Bennett's concerto (which was dedicated to Kovacevich).

In 1984 Stephen Kovacevich made his conducting debut with Houston Symphony Orchestra, and thereafter pursued a dual career as a pianist and conductor. From 1990 to 1993 he was music director of the Irish Chamber Orchestra in Dublin. He has won warm praise for his work with many of the world’s finest orchestras, including the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, London Mozart Players, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Ulster Orchestra, Gulbenkian Orchestra, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Australian Chamber Orchestra and Tapiola Sinfonietta. After his London conducting debut with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall, the Daily Telegraph critic Geoffrey Norris wrote: ‘...he brought precision and crispness combined with a full tone and galvanising immediacy. Structure was unshakeable; these performances really made one sit up and take note.’ After an initial concentration on 18th-century music (especially W.A. Mozart), Kovacevich’s conducting repertoire has expanded to include 19th-century Romantic music, including the symphonies of L.v. Beethoven, J. Brahms, Tchaikovsky and a memorable Sibelius Symphony No. 4. He has also played and directed from the keyboard, with orchestras as the London Mozart Players, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. During the 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 seasons he performed the entire L.v. Beethoven concertos and symphonies as conductor / soloist with the London Mozart Players.

Highlights of 2008-2009 season include concerto appearances with Yannick-Nézét-Séguin and Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, Lawrence Foster and Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo, a Play and Direct project with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and recitals in London, Houston, Beijing and Shanghai.

Stephen Kovacevich is also a committed chamber musician. Chamber music partners include Jacqueline du Pré, Martha Argerich, Steven Isserlis, Nigel Kennedy, Lynn Harrell, Sarah Chang, Gautier Capuçon, Renaud Capuçon, Kyung-wha Chung and Emmanuel Pahud. During the 2008-2009 season he has a mini-residency of J. Brahms and B. Bartók chamber music at the Wigmore Hall. Other appearances include chamber recitals at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and the Vienna Musikveren.

Stephen Kovacevich has enjoyed two long-term relationships with recording companies, first Philips and then EMI. His concerto recordings for Philips, including L.v. Beethoven, Robert Schumann and B. Bartók, have long been staples of the catalogue. As an exclusive EMI artist, he recorded both J. Brahms Piano Concertos with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Wolfgang Sawallisch; No 1 was Grammy-nominated and won the 1993 Gramophone Award and the Stereo Review Record of the Year, while No 2 won the Diapason D'Or. The other great projects with EMI were a compelling series of Schubert Sonatas and a set of the 32 L.v. Beethoven Sonatas completed in 2003, hailed as one of the most authoritative ever recorded. One critic described The Hammerklavier as: ‘an unflinching, sometimes combative view of a titanic masterpiece, and a version to be spoken of in the same breath as those of Brendel, Gilels and Pollini... Kovacevich announces the music’s potency from the first bar.’ His subsequent CD release of Frédéric Chopin and Ravel won Choc du Monde de la Musique and Recompense Classica/Repertoire. Kovacevich has recently recorded L.v. Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations for Onyx Classics, exactly years after his first recording of the work for Philips in 1968. The CD is coupled with J.S. Bach's Partita No. 4 (BWV 828), his first J.S. Bach recording and was released in January 2009.

Stephen Kovacevich has been a London resident since the early 1960's, and is currently living in Hampstead. In 1986 he was appointed to an international chair at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Also known for his support of contemporary composers, Kovacevich commissioned Stephen Montague's Southern Lament and performed the premiere at the 1997 Cheltenham International Music Festival. Also a teacher, Kovacevich has published a scholarly edition of Schubert's piano music. He was the third husband of the pianist Martha Argerich.

Source: Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of 20th Century Classical Musicians (1997); Van Walsum Website (January 2009); All Music Guide Website; Wikipedia Website
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (January 2009)

Stephen Kovacevich: Short Biography | Recordings of Instrumental Works

Links to other Sites

Stephen Kovacevich, piano / conductor (Van Walsum)
Stephen Kovacevich (EMI Classics)
Stephen Kovacevich - Biography (CM Artists New York)

Stephen Kovacevich (Onyx)
Stephen Bishop Kovacevich - Biography (AMG)
Stephen Kovacevich (Wikipedia)

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