As he celebrates his 70th birthday with a Wigmore Hall concert, the pianist talks to Oliver Condy
What inspired you to celebrate your 70th birthday at the Wigmore Hall?
No one wants to be 70, so I thought I might as well take my mind off it in a very nice way! I knew people would accept – normally you couldn’t get the Belcea Quartet and Martha Argerich and this brilliant girl, pianist Khatia Buniatishvili… But as it was my birthday and for charity, well, I thought there would be a good chance of getting everyone together.
Tell me about why you’re performing Bartók’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion
Martha [Argerich] and I recorded the Bartók years ago – it’s one of my favourite pieces. It’s a homage to fury and to melancholy and to exhuberance too. And it’s very difficult. There aren’t many people who I’d really want to do it with, and Martha and I have enjoyed so much playing it before. We played it in Lugano about two months ago and that was fine. In fact, that performance in Lugano was good – she and I know each other’s idosyncracies, and the two percussion players, I hear, know it upside down. Even more excitingly, they love it, which is even more wonderful. Martha and I have rehearsed a long time on it – but she’s only coming in the night before.
You have this young pianist playing with you too?
Yes, Khatia Buniatishvili – she is a genius, and has played the Liszt Sonata a great deal. I heard her in a class two years ago in Monte Carlo and I heard her in Lugano too. I was stupefied by her Prokofiev Sonata No. 7 which was really terrifying. She has an astounding gift. This concert is turning out to be her debut – so it’s thrilling to me on my birthday to introduce someone of her calibre to the public.
Tell me about the first time you performed at the Wigmore
I was 20, it was 1961 and it was one of the worst winters. It was Sunday afternoon and I drove in the snow. I couldn’t think of anything worse than having to play. I played the Beethoven Diabelli Variations in the second half; in the first, it was the Berg Sonata and then some Bach. With the Berg Sonata, whether or not you play it with comprehension, the opening eight bars can be sight-read. And I looked down at my hands, and there they were, shaking away and I thought, ‘In an hour I have to play the Diabelli!’ A tricky programme.
Did you enjoy performing back then?
When you’re 20 you’re ambitious and you think you can do anything! Or at least that’s how you programme things. In a way it’s a nice characteristic – after all when you’re young, if you don’t have the temptation to do things like that, I think it’s a pity. I didn’t truly enjoy performing until the last ten years – and especially after having recovered from my stroke.
You had a stroke?
I had one two and half years ago. I woke up one morning and my left hand wouldn’t play the notes I wanted it to. They thought it was a pinched nerve. I went to Holland to play, and I was playing passages of great simplicity with great difficulty. And then it switched for about an hour and a half to my right hand. They then got scared and I had to have an operation. Soon after, I had a proper stroke and I couldn’t speak for two or three days. But I’ve totally recovered; now all my abilities are back. It’s very weird.
Now you’re 70, are there any bits of repertoire you’d still like to perform?
I’m still disappointed that I haven’t performed, though I have learned, all the Rachmaninov Concertos. I would very much like to do Nos 2 or 4 but that means taking some considerable time off. And that’s a problem because there’s a huge amount of chamber music that I still want to learn!
Interview by Oliver Condy
Stephen Kovacevich’s 70th birthday concert takes places at the Wigmore Hall on 17 October at 7pm