sun 23/06/2024

theartsdesk Q&A: Pianist Stephen Kovacevich | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Pianist Stephen Kovacevich

theartsdesk Q&A: Pianist Stephen Kovacevich

A living legend gives a grand retrospective in his 75th birthday week

Kovacevich: 'Having to fight gives you something that is somehow also what music is all about'Onyx

“Whatever happened to Stephen Bishop?” is not a question likely to be asked by followers of legendary pianism. Born in San Pedro, Los Angeles on 17 October 1940, the young talent took his stepfather’s name as his career was launched at the age of 11. Later he honoured his own father’s Croatian "Kovacevich", by appending it to the “Bishop”.

Now it’s plain Kovacevich carved in the pantheon of similar yet unique sensibilities like those of Arrau, Pollini, Richter and Zimerman, alongside masterly exponents of mostly different repertoire like Martha Argerich.

On 2 November, in the hottest ticket on the London concert scene this season, Kovacevich’s 75th birthday concert at the Wigmore Hall, Argerich (pictured below with Kovacevich at Lugano by Sonja Werner) will join her ex-husband and unshakeable duo partner in Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances and Debussy’s En blanc et noir. To turn the birthday spotlight rightly on himself, Kovacevich will also play a late masterpiece of which he is a supreme interpreter, Schubert’s valedictory B flat Sonata D960.

Stephen Kovacevich and Martha ArgerichNo-one who was there will forget  the 70th birthday celebrations, also at the Wigmore with Argerich and introducing the fearsome talent of Khatia Buniatishvili. That was only two years after a stroke which left Kovacevich initially unable to speak even though he was back playing after a fortnight. Only long pauses for reflection during a very responsive interview might have suggested any remnants of such a major upheaval, though afterwards Kovacevich admitted that serious conversation requires a lot of concentrated energy.

After four hours of solo practice on En blanc et noir, to which he was returning after the interview in the unpretentious Belsize Park residence where he has lived for over 30 years, Kovacevich’s mind was very much on the work to hand. But since I've been a fan after an Edinburgh recital in the early 1980s opened my mind to late Brahms piano music, I wanted very much for myself to know what remained of the essence to him. And as a pianist who seemed mature and wise even in the early days, it’s not surprising that Kovacevich had not shifted his allegiance to his main loves.

DAVID NICE: This may seem like an obvious place to start, but what still has the most impact for you? What’s the music that you can still go on finding significance and new things in?

STEVEN KOVACEVICH: I’m lucky because, with the exception of the Chopin Mazurkas, the music that has always involved me has been primarily late-period music – even when I was a kid, well, at 18, I fell for the Diabelli Variations. I didn’t like Beethoven until then. Then I got to know the late quartets.

What was the first impact of those on you?

I was overwhelmed. I still can be. But then I just couldn’t believe such music existed. The late Mozart quintets, late Schubert, late Chopin – for some morbid or who knows what reason the third period of composers always grabbed me.

But these aren’t morbid pieces, are they?

Some of Schubert I think is. And then, because I had a stroke seven years ago, I have to work harder on the smaller repertoire. And I’ve accepted that, and indeed sometimes it’s given me things that I would never have achieved in the normal hard-working way I always did, because I have to work harder now, even on things I know.

So was it a memory problem?

I wouldn’t say specifically memory, I don’t know what it is. But learning new things for the 2nd of November – my new love is Rachmaninov, I always loved him, but now it’s mega, big time. I’d only played a few preludes before, but now with Martha, we’re doing the Symphonic Dances.

[The Russian conductor] Yevgeny Svetlanov said that was his favourite work out of an enormous repertoire.

RachmaninovRachmaninov (pictured left) considered it his best piece. I don’t know that it is, but I think it’s absolutely stupefying. And I can’t say where, but I was given access to a private recording which nobody knows about, but through interviews now, people do, of Rachmaninov playing, singing, talking, explaining how he wants it to go. And one thing is slightly surprising: there are some notes that are slightly different, maybe he changed them, and on 2nd of  November I’m going to change them because I like what he does.

Anything major?

One line in the cantabile in the coda of the first movement he plays differently and I think he changed it for a more beautiful thing. It’s beautiful as it is, but the way he does it gives a slightly different shape to the phrase, and then there’s a harmony which he changes when he plays it, I think it makes more sense than the printed harmony, but both are fine. It’s no big deal. But I only started learning it a year ago, I’d heard it many times and I disagreed with everyone, including Martha, and all the great recordings, about the tempo of the waltz-like music at the centre of the last movement. I’ve felt the same, over the last 30 years, that the codas of the Second and Third Piano Concertos are always taken – well, I’ve nothing against Hollywood, but they come out as sunny endings. But I don’t think that’s what the music is – I think it’s surging there, and with the exception of – there’s no-one better – Yuja Wang (pictured below by Ian Douglas), who plays these codas with absolute passion, everyone else turns to Hollywood and the orchestra sounds wonderful and everybody takes time and it’s beautiful…

But Rachmaninov didn’t play it like that himself.

No, he goes over the top in the other way. But no one now does it the other way, except for her. And you can see her conductor is having a hard time keeping up. But I’m very grateful to her for that. Anyway, I thought the waltz was in this category, being too romantic, too slow. I find it heartbreaking if it’s slightly more flowing. And I rehearsed it in Brussels with Martha about two weeks ago, we had talked about it before, and she’s going to do it with me – you never know what can happen at the last minute, but that’s the plan, to do it at the more forward tempo. And nobody does that. Also, do you know this very unusual marking he gives for the first movement, non allegro – who’s ever heard of that?

What does it mean?

Exactly, what does it mean. And then he scratched it out. The foremost piano duo when I was a teenager was a Russian pair called Vronsky and Babin, and they were close to Rachmaninov. They did the first recording. They play allegro quasi, but when the main theme comes back it’s more non allegro. More important, on his own demonstration Rachmaninov definitely makes it non allegro. It’s appreciably slower, you might have some orchestras doing that, but pianists doing it that way, no. It’s actually more disturbing and much more vehement, and we’re going to go for it on the 2nd of November. I’ve just agreed, surprising myself, to let the BBC do a live broadcast. In for a penny, in for a pound, what the hell. And [Debussy’s] En blanc et noir is the first piece we recorded together 40 years ago, and we played it in Martha’s festival in Lugano two months ago. It’s in our system. And although it’s much more difficult than the Rachmaninov in terms of subtlety, it’s a tenth as difficult to play, and then the Rachmaninov, and then – as  a birthday present for myself – I’m going to do the Schubert B flat, and I won’t give away the surprise, but one, maybe two encores, not with me but with two people I’m going to ask out from the public to join me on stage – they know.

Yuja WangFormer pupils?

Not pianists at all. A violinist and violist who will play little things with me. I think we have time for it. And the BBC has agreed – I told them they could take the broadcast on condition they didn’t do a fade out, and they’ve given an enormous amount of time for the concert, so we should be OK. It’s very difficult to get a good piano sound from the WIgmore Hall, and the recording they made of the 70th birthday concert in terms of sound is really not up to it.

What was wrong with it?

In your face. Every time you play piano it sounds like forte

So it’s the way they recorded it?

Yes. And partly it’s their fault they didn’t get good sound and partly they’re restricted by regulations on sound levels. But they know the problem, I’ve reminded them of it again, and they’re going to roll up their sleeves and try and get a decent sound.

Are you going to overhear what they do in rehearsals?

To a degree, but if I don’t like it it’s so discouraging that I’d rather not. So when I can see it’s en route I’ll just piss off and go and play. But it is a significant problem for the BBC, the Wigmore Hall. The Wigmore Hall can be fine live, but if you have a small sound it suits broadcasting. That's why when I’ve accompanied a singer for a broadcast the sound is good because you’re not playing loud. We may or may not solve it, but they’re going to try.

Next page: Schubert's last sonata, critics and passing time

Stephen Bishop

What else? Well, the Schubert B flat continues in my opinion to grow, I can’t tell you how or why.

Yours is my favourite recording for that (pictured below), I think I heard it for the first time from you but it’s remained at the top of the list. Richter too, I love the way he takes those late sonatas.

Yes. I don’t play anything like as slowly as him. And I think although I love taking the [first movement exposition] repeat, I won’t, we’ll see how much time there is and what the public is like.

Do you react on the spur of the moment to what the public is like?

Yes. If I’m not playing well then I won’t want to do the repeat. But if I’m playing well and the public is rapt, then I usually take a repeat. Something which astonished me, Bärenreiter published some of Schubert’s sketches, quite a few, for these sonatas, and the thing that everyone gets excited about, me too, is that the [left hand] trill in the [bridge back to] the repeat is fortissimo for the one and only time. Guess what? In the sketches the trill is pianissimo. It could have been a handwriting error that led to the marking on publication, and we, slaves that we are to scholarship, may have made a point out of something that is complete nonsense. We don’t know.

It’s not so much slavery to scholarship, surely, it’s just so terrifying.

Stephen Kovacevich Schubert B flat Sonata recordingStartling, yes, when it happens. Each time I’ve done it I’ve enjoyed it, but – and this isn’t because I saw the sketches – I’ve thought: 'Is this really right?' It’s too Beethovian a gesture. If Schubert meant it, it’s fantastic. But it could be a mistake, because his handwriting was crap, we know this. If I take the repeat, I will bang out the trill, but it could be…phoney [big laugh].

Well, maybe you’d react to how the audience feels.

Then critics would just lambast me. I played in the first concert that Chailly gave with the Concertgebouw, and I had just read what Chailly wrote, I knew about it anyway, that in the Fourth Concerto Beethoven arpeggiated the opening. The critics wrote, this guy from California, does he think the piano is a guitar? That’s the sort of thing you have to put up with. No respect, Do they think I would actually do something like that without knowing that there’s a justification?

The intelligent question would be, well that was unusual so…

Where did he get it from? It doesn’t mean you have to do it. But really, with some critics, there’s no safety in playing well, let’s put it that way.

But does it bother you that much if they’re ignorant about it?

It’s not just ignorance. I was reading the letters page of The European when it existed, and there was a letter from Ashkenazy, and it was about me, I’d no idea he’d written it. He had just read Gramophone’s review of when I’d just started with EMI, a recording project, and this guy had said it was a complete failure. No one is a complete failure.

Not at the level at which you operate.

No, it’s just nonsense. Vova was absolutely outraged, and he wrote a letter which said, if Beethoven could play that well, I think that’s how he’d do it, Yours sincerely. You ask if it makes me angry. I was shocked, EMI was shocked, Vova just lost his rag. And you have to put up with shit like this.

I think he was so exercised by the critics in this country that he wouldn’t do recitals.

For a long time – now, of course, he’s stopped playing, he has some problems. I heard him practising – I played with him conducting in Sydney about a year and a half ago, and when I was going to my rehearsal room I heard him practising. He’s still a great pianist. For his own reasons he doesn’t want to play in public.

But not because of critics. But there was a period…

...when they pissed on him. Listen, when Colin Davis was at Covent Garden he couldn’t conduct “Three Blind Mice” without being torn apart. There are times when you’re out and times when you’re in. Gramophone last month compared 80 recordings of the Diabelli and they chose mine. It’s the luck of the draw.

It’s also what temperamentally the listener feels most in tune with. At a certain level. But you have to accept that there is that level at which the great artists perform, and you may have issues with the interpretation but you’re not going to slam the musicianship.

Zlata ChochievaYou can, but you have to do it with perspective. Especially when you’re out there at the beginning. If they said I was a complete loony it wouldn’t make any difference. But when you’re 20 it does. Again, talking of the right kind of luck, there’s a 29 year old woman whom I heard first in Sweden three years ago, Zlata Chochieva (pictured above) and I liked her. Plus. Then she made a recording of the Chopin Etudes, sent it to me about a year ago. It’s absolutely magnificent, I’ve never heard anything better. Also quite original and rather dark. And in Gramophone they wrote that it was absolutely magnificent too. But another critic would have slammed it. I think that we all have good reviews for bad concerts, bad reviews for good concerts, good reviews for good concerts and bad reviews for bad – we’ve had all that. But what happens most is a bad review for something really fine. There’s something irritating and provocative.

[We discuss a young pianist who, as Kovacevich asserts, is “insanely gifted, they don’t come more gifted than that” but whose interpretative decisions we don’t always understand]

Sometimes agents just cram just too many concerts in. They don’t have to play them, they don’t give a shit how they go, I’m speaking very crudely. But there is some truth in what I’m saying.

So there’s no time for the young artist to reflect.

No. And also when you’re young, you get a nice date, you accept, then at some point you’ve accepted too much. Horowitz at his peak played 25 concerts a year, now come on – it’s just amazing, he could have played 25 a week.

But when you’re at the peak you can choose. It’s when you’re on the way up that you feel you can’t.

I won’t mention his name, an artist I don’t like but who was definitely a great pianist, was accepting too many concerts, and he told a conductor friend of mine, well, there are so many young people that if I don’t accept it, they will. I find that really sad and shocking – he was the real thing. I didn’t enjoy him but he was the real thing.

But that’s not thinking about the music, it’s thinking about yourself.

Well, [the young pianist we'd been talking about] can do things of such imagination – she and Yuja are phenomenal, and there are some young men who are very damned near like that, but it makes no difference they’re all on such a high level. We’ll see what happens.

I heard an early recording I made of the Schubert A major Sonata, and I thought, ooh, yuk, and I hadn’t heard it for 20 years, so something must have changed

The response with the audience – to me as I get older it becomes more of a mystery. Britten talked very eloquently about the triangle of the composer, the performer and the audience, it’s still the intangible element, isn’t it, what triggers a completely intensely silent audience, and when you as a performer feels it, everyone feels it. Have you come any closer to understanding that?

No. Even more, I don’t understand the rapture that some performances get. I find that by and large we play and conduct very politically correctly. One of the – not young but not old, old-young age – conductors, everybody’s darling, I heard conduct a performance of a symphony I love, superb orchestra, it was plodding beyond belief. I kid you not, it was just plodding. And this was being rapturously received, and this I don’t get, I really don’t get it. I can understand something cheap getting incredible success, but a rapturous reception for something plodding is a mystery to me.

Maybe it’s the reputation, the reverence…

Yes. A friend of mine was ill for quite a long time, and he had a lot of time to listen. He said he heard a lot of not very well known people doing wonderful things, and very well known people doing quite banal things.

You must have discovered when you’ve been playing in smaller-scale festivals the most astonishing music-making from people we don’t know in this country…

That’s right – and never will.

But the number of pianists who are only moderately well known…

I agree – and they’re not going to make a living, it’s shocking. On the other hand, when I hear recordings of Klemperer I’m bored. When I was at the concerts I was overwhelmed. But I was quoting to James Naughtie when he was here some words of Blake, I’m mangling them, but something along the lines of “Some people are so cold they don’t even know what temptation is” [possibly “And heard and saw such dreadful things/As cold earth wanderers never knew”]. And that I would apply to many performers today. There are maybe two early-music people I think are stupendous, I don’t agree, but they’re stupendous, and the rest I think are just empty.

It’s not got the fire?

No gravitas…

Some are just fiery for the hell of it. You don’t want Mozart rattled through.

But it very often is. I have a letter of Mozart which I’ve read, and if I’ve read it everyone knows it, where he makes fun of people using vibrato with their elbows. By which he means vibrato in bad taste. He doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be there, he’s talking about grotesque vibrato technique. And that’s a very funny way of putting it. The only way he criticizes it is to say that there is a beautiful vibrato, but that’s not it.

Stephen KovacevichHas anything really changed for you, say the way you’ve looked at the late Schubert sonatas over the years, for example?

Well, it must have done, because I heard an early recording I made of the A major Sonata, and I thought, ooh, yuk, and I hadn’t heard it for 20 years, so something must have changed, that’s the only way I can put it.

I read you describing the Beethoven sonatas and saying how attracted you were to the metaphysical, spiritual side of these pieces as a teenager.

That’s right. That hasn’t changed at all, except that in the old days I took it as a rainbow, a proof of something divine, while now I would say it’s the hope of something divine.

By which you mean it’s more understandably human?

Or that there is a benign destiny. But that’s why I think Schubert is special because he doesn’t give you that. He takes it on the chin, whereas with Beethoven in the late period and Mozart, there’s a radiance. There can be radiance in Schubert, but I would say the darkness is unassuaged more than in late Mozart or Beethoven.

When it comes it disrupts.

It disrupts and it’s not completely taken away.

Not even, to take an example, in the slow movement of D960, there is such pain but he comes out of it, that’s a kind of transcendence.

He comes out of it, but I wouldn’t put all my money on it [laughs].

But don’t you find that interesting, and isn’t it the same with Bruckner, that the struggle is more interesting than easy assurance?

Well, yes, and also sometimes when I hear Mahler, I sometimes feel the desperation is tacked on, in the same way that consolation can be tacked on. When he’s great I’m on my knees – Das Lied von der Erde seems to me just astonishing, the Ninth Symphony probably. The First Symphony I love, and the Fourth, then the others I have problems with.

Is it rather reductive to ask whether since your stroke you’ve found more of the mortality in these works?

No, nothing, nada. You know, Rachmaninov only had success with his Third Concerto once when he played it – with Mahler in New York. For me he’s the greatest of all pianists, no question, but the Third Concerto recording he made is rather diffident. I love the Second though I disagree with the way he plays it, the Fourth is beautiful. His recording of the First, there’s no way to play it better, astonishing.

And the range in the recordings of the shorter pieces.

Oh, absolutely – just fantastic.

Have you played the Op. 39 Etudes-Tableaux?

It’s one of the things I want to play – I played the Symphonic Dances with the pianist I mentioned, Zlata Chochieva, in Dubrovnik, and there wasn’t time to play En blanc et noir, so she played six Etudes-Tableaux, and they were staggering.

There’s also a struggle with death there.

It’s always there. There’s a pianist who’s 10 years older than I am, and I last saw her in Holland, probably when I was 25 or 30. And she and her family were friends of Rachmaninov in Los Angeles. He used to come to Sunday lunch, she would have been 16. And she said: "Stephen, he really did always talk about death." Secondly, and this is such an interesting, unusual anedcdote: very few people had played the Third Concerto at 16 – Petri, Malcuzynski, very few people played it then. And her father said to Rachmaninov: "She’s learned this concerto, would you like to hear it?" And he said, no. It was so cool, not even offensive, he just didn’t want to go to hear a young girl play No. 3. Apparently, though no one can find it but it’s been talked about enough that it must exist, there’s a private eavesdropping recording of Rachmaninov working with Horowitz on the Third Concerto. They played completely differently and Rachmaninov accepted that.

They were supposed to record the Symphonic Dances together, weren’t they, and the RCA man turned it down.

They were. You’re right, but also – I hold this against Rachmaninov, and it’s a Russian tradition – he could be a maniac about money, he was a very, very expensive recording artist. Can you imagine, he wanted to do the Liszt Sonata – they turned it down. But maybe because he was asking impossible fees. And certainly he was supposed to conduct the Chicago Symphony and he was very disappointed that didn’t go through. That implies to me that it wasn’t money. But one of the conjectures in the article which discussed why they didn’t play it together was that maybe he simply was too demanding financially. And who would buy Horowitz and Rachmaninov playing the Symphonic Dances? Very few people.

It seems surprising to us now.

Of course we’d buy it now. But the Symphonic Dances had a bad press at the time. Horowitz and Rachmaninov did play it once, in a house concert at Rachmaninov’s villa [Senar, on Lake Lucerne].

Next page: favourite recordings, favourite performers and the time when nerves took over

It’s interesting that you’re talking about Rachmaninov and Horowitz being very different temperaments, and in an interview which you and Martha Argerich gave together, you and she stressed how different you were as pianists, with very little repertoire overlap. So how does that work in practice?

It works.

You meet in the middle?

No middle, middle means everybody’s unhappy. Actually with the Rachmaninov there were no disagreements. There were things we explored in terms of tempi, but absolutely no disagreement. And in the Debussy, which is much more her world, there were no disagreements. Doesn’t mean we agree about everything, but we worked it out, we experimented, tried this or that. Somewhere there’s a great rapport. And the Bartók Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion…

Bartok Bishop and ArgerichThat’s a wonderful recording.

Well, you can’t get more rapport than that. And you know how that was done?


It was done in Walthamstow or Watford, it was 7 o’clock, I play first piano she plays second, we go to warm up, I was quite happy – her piano wouldn’t play. No one could work it out. Finally the porters said that they had dropped it. So at 7.30, Steinway was shut, Philips were panic stations, started ringing half of London, and at 2.30 in the morning a Steinway arrived. We started recording at 3 in the morning. I was very uncomfortable; Martha wakes up at 3 in the morning. But the recording is really marvellous, and that was done from 3 to 7.30.

What are your favourite recordings apart from that?

Bartók 2 with Colin, Brahms 2 with Colin, I have a soft spot for much of the Schumann with Colin, and of my solo recordings, from Philips, the Brahms shorter pieces of Op. 76. The set is tough which is why it’s not often played, and you know there are many great pieces, but for me the astonishing achievement is the last Capriccio. The beginning, in a certain mood you could think it’s Scriabin. And you know it was in the bin before Joachim saved it. And if Brahms threw that away, you wonder what else he threw away. Joachim said, no, no, he’d read it through, he said "Are you nuts?" That’s a genius piece – go home and listen to it. It’s very difficult, starts moderately quick and gets quicker, and there’s so much info there that you have to be on your toes to catch it.

In terms of working with conductors, obviously the relationship with Colin Davis  is what you dream of, the ideal partnership, and Argerich with anyone is always astonishing, but it doesn’t happen that a soloist and a conductor are that close very often.

The relationship with Colin stopped for some reason I’m not aware of, but it went on for 10 years, 10 very good years. It’s a pity, because whether or not there would have been a reconciliation or not I don’t know, but he had agreed we would play together again, but then he died.

Was there a falling out?

Hard to say. There must have been, but not on my part. What was it about? Not sure. But it was very painful. And if he walked in here now I’d melt even though I’m still angry.

Well, he did some fantastic things in his last years – Sibelius and Elgar.

And Berlioz – The Trojans is just out of this world

Actually it was the performance before the one that went on to CD that was amazing.

Yes, yes, yes. I heard that at the LSO too. That earlier Trojans were mindblowing.

Bartok Davis recordingDo you listen much to orchestral music?

I listen mainly to orchestral music.

Anyone in particular?

No one in particular. I think among the greatest performances that I know, and I hate the word greatest but having said it I’ll use it, is [Strauss’s] Don Juan from Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, do you know that’s one take? I heard something from Maazel whom I don’t normally enjoy, but it was wonderful…

Early Maazel?

I don’t know. I played Beethoven 1 with him, I was good, he was good, and he did Brahms 1, the symphony, that was amazingly good and fiery, but he could be like a sniper, so cold. I’ve enjoyed Pappano, especially his Meistersinger, and Edward Gardner I like. This man who conducts in Liverpool, Vasily Petrenko, very good.

We’re in a lucky position to have so many good principal conductors around the country.

But nobody’s good at everything. There is nobody’s Mozart I would search for now, that’s for sure.

Since the deaths of Davis and Mackerras?

Mackerras I never enjoyed, but Davis – I know he’s good. But who would I want to hear conduct the “Jupiter” Symphony now? There’s nobody that comes flying into my mind, and that’s a pity. For me. It would either be PC or gimmicky.

What do you mean by PC in a musical context?

Fast, mean, spare

According to authentic perspective?

Yes. Maybe also PC in a deeper, cultural sense as well, who knows? Political correctness is something that enrages me.

How do you define it exactly?

It’s hard to say. A consensus which is based on a rather lazy conjecture about the wellbeing of the many as opposed to the development of the few. Something like that.

Which other pianists would you listen to?

Benjamin GrosvenorI listen to everyone, I really do. And I think your Benjamin Grosvenor (pictured right by is marvellous, he’s the real thing, that guy. He’s capable of magic, he’s capable of flirtation in his playing, he’s technically a marvellous pianist.

The technical basis is vital?

It’s his natural world, in a different sense to how it was with [John] Ogdon, who was frighteningly talented but a different nature of talent. He was a prodigious man.

Was Ogdon’s more the demonic side?

Yes, yes, absolutely.

I was interested that in performance you’ve said that it should never be safe – you can do something dangerous.

Me? Oh, if it’s dangerous in the music and I feel that I can risk it, yes.

Do you remember surprising yourself doing anything in particular?

I remember playing the Bartók Second Concerto, opening of the Edinburgh Festival, livebroadcast, and I’d only played it three times with Colin. First at a Prom was OK, not bad, not good, but I survived. Second lousy. Performance after that very good. Anyway, I was so terrified in Edinburgh I couldn’t even give the BBC a balance test, they had to be ready without it. And I walked onstage prepared with my speech if I had to stop. Well, I got through the first few pages which are among the most difficult, and I started thinking, wait a minute, I got through that. Martha was in the audience sitting with a wonderful Spanish pianist, Rafael Orozco, and they knew there was a passage I found particularly difficult, and they hugged each other when it came up, and I got through it perfectly, and after that I went completely ballistic, I don’t think I’ve ever played better. That felt marvellous, like surviving some primitive initiation where they burn you and you don’t flinch, and I remember backstage there was a bottle of Perrier, and I’ve never tasted anything more delicious, And we all went out to dinner afterwards, even Colin who didn’t like going out. So I think that was me at the most I can do.

Later there was a Diabelli in New York at the Metropolitan Museum which I would put in that category, a D minor Brahms with Neeme Järvi, when he was in charge of the Scottish National Orchestra. The opening was terrifying. I remember he just threw out a beat and the orchestra went whoosh – and I played like that as well. We were going to record them and then he left Chandos. At his best he’s quite something. That was marvellous. A D minor with, of all people, Previn, who has a dark side, let me tell you.

So there’s never been a point at which you were so nervous that you couldn’t play?

Yes, I thought I’d have to stop for a while.

But you didn’t actually have to stop in concert?

Once, in Tasmania, of all unscary places. But I survived. I learned something from surviving.

How did you re-adjust? Through time?

Time, yes, keeping going. Of course it had negative sides, but having to fight gives you something that is somehow also what music is all about, trying to cope when everything isn’t going your way. So that’s about it.

  • Stephen Kovacevich's 75th birthday concert with Martha Argerich is on 2 November at the Wigmore Hall; returns only. You can catch it live on BBC Radio 3

Next page: watch a brief clip of Kovacevich playing Schumann and Beethoven at the 2009 Verbier FestivalBrief excerpts of Stephen Kovacevich playing at the 2009 Verbier Festival


Terrific interview, and no surprise. David Nice's Q&As are my absolute favorite feature on TAD. Keep 'em coming!

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