Stephen Kovacevich is in ebullient mood. Dashing back from Paris for our meeting, he brews coffee at his north London home as we swap notes about orchestras. This week, he celebrates his 75th birthday. Born in Los Angeles, he took up the piano at the age of seven. He moved to London to study with Dame Myra Hess at the age of eighteen and has been based here ever since. Kovacevich is simply a piano legend, many of his interpretations preserved on disc. In 1968 he made the seminal recording of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, a work he studied with Hess, who was also discovering it. Forty years later, he re-recorded it, a “wilder” interpretation which pleases him. We discussed his early musical experiences, the stroke he suffered, pertinent advice for young pianists and a new found love.

© David Thompson | EMI Classics
© David Thompson | EMI Classics
Kovacevich came from a “music-loving, but not musical” family. His Croatian father was one of the earliest to spot the potential for freezing fish to sell to markets, and life was comfortable. “We had a very good sound system,” he recalls. “The first piece of music I fell in love with was Mozart’s 40th Symphony, and then Johann Strauss’ Tales from Vienna Woods and then Wagner’s Die Meistersinger: those we my first three loves.”

He took up the piano at seven. “I wasn’t any good until I was about ten. My first concert was at age eleven.” He can still remember the programme, which included Debussy’s Jardins sous la pluie and Voiles, Bach’s E minor Toccata, Mozart, Tcherepnin, a Kabalevsky sonatina and two pieces from Bartók’s Op.14. “The first concert, I was very nervous, which was a bit disconcerting, but the second was good.”

Nerves have been a battle throughout his career. “I’ve never been lazy – I’ve always been well prepared. There are obviously psychological factors but I’ve been helped by sports coaches. They’re used to helping penalty-takers adopt the thinking that “it might go in” rather than “it might miss”. Psychoanalysis has never helped, but the influence of friends can. Currently, the wine glass is much more full than empty."

Seven years ago, Kovacevich suffered a stroke. “I went upstairs to practise and I couldn’t get the left hand to play the right notes and I had no idea why. I was told it was a pinched nerve and was treated for that, but I went on tour and my right hand started to lose some velocity and that scared everybody. They gave me a CT scan and discovered I had a heartbeat of 39, which is as bad as it gets without actually keeling over. I could easily have fallen over and woken up semi-paralysed, or been killed. So they put this bloody pacemaker in – no pain, absolutely nothing – but two or three days after the pacemaker, that’s when you’re vulnerable. I then had a proper stroke. I couldn’t speak but I was in the hospital here in London. My motor functions were pretty good, so I asked “When can I start working?” and the doctor told me “You put the key in your door, and then you go straight to the piano!” which I did. I performed the Emperor Concerto just three weeks later!

“Funnily enough, for about a year I played better than ever! And then I had a transient ischaemic attack (TIA) – millions of people have them and aren’t aware. It took me a long time to get over it. You’re not aware that your body is re-routing and then, one day, everything is crystal clear again. You think it’s subito, but it’s not. You’re unaware of all the wires being re-routed.”

Kovacevich has since cut down his repertoire. “Barring one, the concerts in the last year have felt superb. I’ve cut the repertoire down drastically. I work like hell on the things that I can play upside-down and it’s paying off. Luckily the repertoire is so enriching. Last week I spent a long time on the Schubert B flat sonata… I’ve played it since I was 25, and I’ve always worked on it. I’m not going to give a California hippy answer about having new revelations, but things do appear which haven’t been there before.”

He has chosen the Schubert for his 75th birthday recital at London’s Wigmore Hall, coupled with Debussy’s En blanc et noir and Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, which he will perform with his former partner, Martha Argerich. They’ve played the Debussy together before, but Rachmaninov is a new departure.

“My new love is Rachmaninov. I always loved him, but I’ve absolutely fallen in love with playing his music." A photograph of the composer sits on Kovacevich's sideboard. 

"People sneer at it and it’s to their cost. Why are we ashamed of loving Rachmaninov? I’m not saying that it’s a late Mozart string quintet. On the other hand, if I didn’t have it, I wouldn’t enjoy the Mozart as much.

“You see, I think La Valse is a work of genius. I think Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is a work of genius. They’re both equal of importance to me. They fulfil different functions. And if a person can’t see that, first of all I think they’re blind and secondly – and this is pushing the boat out – I think you can hear it in their playing. Their perceived wisdom means they’re genuflecting all the time. I’m not a baby. I know he’s not Mozart. On the other hand, I adore him these days in a way I don’t adore anybody else… apart maybe from the mazurkas of Chopin.

“As a pianist, there is no disputing that Rachmaninov is the king. Even if you don’t like it, he’s still the king! There’s nobody like him. There’s a wayward Rachmaninov recording of a Schubert Impromptu – not the the famous A flat, but the other one – it begins not to my taste, but in the middle, he plays in a way I’ve not heard anyone play. It’s not interpreting… it’s becoming. And he becomes it and it shows all his weaknesses, but it shows the passion. It may show some excesses but you have a total immersion and it’s devastating. Rachmaninov played that Impromptu at almost every concert he gave. So he had a thing about it. When you have a thing about it, it means you know something about it."

Before our interview, Kovacevich had just returned from a quick hop over to Paris to rehearse the Symphonic Dances with Argerich, for whom they’re a staple part of her repertoire. “Martha adores them. I’ve always adored them too, but this is the first time I’ve played them. She told me just yesterday that “you really have something to say”. It’s not just idle love but it’s taken me until this weird age to “come out”!

“Just think, Rachmaninov was living in a city where Stravinsky and Schoenberg were neighbours and there was this guy writing music which is anacronistic and he had the guts to continue. There’s an interesting account of Stravinsky and his wife inviting Rachmaninov and his wife to dinner. Stravinsky doesn’t talk about Rachmaninov’s music, he says what a magnificent pianist Rachmaninov is but he says this thing which must have been difficult for Stravinsky, who was so pithy… he says “this man is awesome”. Now for Stravinsky to use a word like that, let me tell you, that means he seriously was!

You’ll never believe it, you know who loved Rachmaninov? Bartók! Bartók came and heard the Paganini Rhapsody and he said “That is genius”. Can you imagine some of today’s contemporary composers being so generous? No.

© David Thompson | EMI Classics
© David Thompson | EMI Classics
“I have been given access to a private recording that nobody knows exists of Rachmaninov playing and talking about the Symphonic Dances. It’s a horrible recording – you can hear him talking but the recording is so bad you can’t even be sure what language it’s in. There is a woman’s voice – we don’t know who it is. Now all my colleagues, with the exception maybe of Yuja Wang, play these great Rachmaninov codas in his concertos in a sumptuous, voluptuous way. That’s not the way Rachmaninov did it – that’s not to say one has to play exactly the way he does it – but I think that since Hollywood – and I’m not dismissing Hollywood – but I think this sort of ‘golden sunset’ has taken over our imaginations and how we think these pieces have to end. Actually, they don’t. They have to end – and when you look at the score he writes velocissimo and things like that and people play it in a very voluptuous way. Yuja is the only one of the young generation who doesn’t. Her performance of No. 2 from Verbier was absolutely out of this world."

Kovacevich is full of praise for Wang. “She comes over and we work on stuff together. She is gifted beyond words. And she is an extremely nice woman. I wouldn’t say she’s modest, but she’s not arrogant at all. She’s not a diva. She’s extremely serious.

"Anyway, I’ve always felt that people play the waltz towards the end of the Symphonic Dances too slow, too expressively and I also think people conduct it too slow. I’ve won no friends with telling certain conductors that! Guess what you hear on this recording? It flows!”

Kovacevich confides his regret at never having performed Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto. “If I can learn it at my age, I’d like to. I studied it when I was with Myra Hess, but I obviously didn’t feel confident enough about it to offer it in concert. I’d like to play some of the Étude-tableaux too.”

Rachmaninov at his Steinway
Rachmaninov at his Steinway

Both Kovacevich and Argerich started their careers at a young age. What advice would he give to pianists just embarking on a career, especially in the number of concerts and recordings they take on?

“This is, unfortunately, a pertinent question. Some of the most gifted younger artists we have are, in my opinion, dissipating their gifts. They play eight times a week. Their agents pretend to care, but they don’t give a f**k because they’re raking in their income. They probably don’t even know that’s their motivation. And they probably don’t know what harm is being caused. You know that Horowitz for some years – at the peak of his career – only played 25 concerts a year…. because that is what he felt able to do.

“You know, travelling is so easy now but nobody’s getting away with it free of charge. So my advice is – that nobody’s going to take! – play the hand in poker you’ve got. If you’ve got a Full House, don’t pretend you’ve got a Straight Flush because it will catch up with you. And you can burn out, you can lose your confidence if you’re playing badly too often.”

You can’t help feeling that Kovacevich has played his own hand very well, and may just have the odd Ace left to surprise us.