I've always loved Richter's towering account on M&A (sadly out of print now), but this warmly expressive account by Kovacevich was a revelation to me. There are many extraordinary recordings of the work, but most of them sounds too laboured and self-concious, taking this music as a sort of huge mountain to climb, that is tiring to listen to.
Kovacevich's account, on the other hand, is very sincere and wonderfully fresh, letting the music speak most eloquently and also bringing Schubertian lyricism in slow variations. Technically he is solid like a rock, and in some variations he surpasses even Richter, not to mention Pollini and Sokolov. This is a pianism of true maturity and stature no serious collector could miss.
60s' stereo sound is surprisingly fine and realistic.
Here we have one of Beethoven's profoundest works, and a fitting summation of his expansive output for the keyboard. The key to understanding this work is to realise how Beethoven takes the slightly banal, insipid little tune given to him by Diabelli, mocks it, plays with it, then shreds it before reconstructing it into some of the most searching piano music ever written. The move from irony to sublimity is stunningly handled, utilising Beethoven's late keyboard style, including passages of syncopation that are reminscent of the late sonata op.111 (and 20th century jazz). The intellectual power with which Beethoven deconstructs the initial theme then forces it through a series of transformations makes this one of the greatest variation works for keyboard, challenged only by Bach's 'Goldberg' variations. The sense of 'journey' and 'adventure' that is achieved by the end makes this a unique musical experience. The last 'forte' chord seems to close the door on an entire world. As to the performance, Kovacevich's 1970s reading has long been acknowledged as a classic, and so it is. Other performances may be more idiosyncratic but this one has lasted well. It's a straight-forward performance but with enough individuality to bear many repeated listenings. No-one interested in the 19th century piano repertoire or in Beethoven should miss this work, or this recording. The reproduction of the piano sound is good, considering the age of the recording, with little hiss, a bright clear treble and a satisfyingly resonant bass. Highly recommended.
One of the many excellences of this recording, which currently is unavailable in the US, is that the big boogie-woogie variation is finally done entirely correctly rhythmically (and it is the only perfectly realized recording, so far as I know). It sounds like, you know, Jerry Lee Lewis. Astounding. Good old Ludwig. He knew. I know it was not a fluke, because although no one else has done it as straight-ahead pounding rock'n'roll, Bishop (now Kovacevich of course) did the exact same thing in the similar boogie-woogie variation in op 111. (And that 1973 or whatever it was recording is actually slightly preferable to the recent remake, which is also superlative.) Just perfect, and like none other. Rock on!
If it's heavyweight piano music you want, then this won't be for you. This is in fact 33 variations on a sprightly little tune by Diabelli, which obviously found Beethoven in light-hearted mood (but then he could not sustain the emotional energy with which he composed the Hammerklavier for ever). This work is good fun and entertaining enough, but one does feel at times that it's easy music to ignore. If you like, it could be treated almost as a sampler. Some of the variations are less than a minute long, while others are more substantial; but the complete collection is less than an hour's work. Nice stuff, indeed, but as for me, I'll be listening to the sonatas again.