Stephen Kovacevich in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

My fortieth interview in the Classical Conversations Series features celebrated American concert pianist Stephen Kovacevich. I spoke to him at his home in West London just before Christmas, and he provides great insights into practising, overcoming nerves and late Beethoven.

Stephen Kovacevich is one of the most searching interpreters.  As a pianist he has won unsurpassed admiration for his playing of Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart and Schubert.

Born in Los Angeles, Stephen Kovacevich made his concert debut as a pianist at the age of eleven.  When he was eighteen he moved to England to study with Dame Myra Hess.  Since then his international reputation 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 has appeared with many of the world’s finest orchestras and conductors including Colin Davis, Hans Graf, Bernard Haitink, Kurt Masur, Simon Rattle and Georg Solti.

Stephen Kovacevich remains a consummate and insightful performer: After a recent performance in Barcelona in January 2014, one critic remarked “Kovacevich gave, without any limitation, the measure of a truly great artist” (El Mundo)

Performance highlights this season include two recitals at the Salle Pleyel Paris ( December 2014 and May 2015), an extensive tour of the Far East including Korea, Taiwan and China, alongside a live BBC Radio 3 broadcast to celebrate their week long focus on Brahms in October 2014 as well as recitals in London (Wigmore Hall), Boston, Dublin and Cardiff to name a few. Recent concerto highlights include a triumphant return to Montreal Symphony Orchestra (under David Zinman), Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra (with Sylvain Cambreling), Malaysian Philharmonic (Jacek Kaspszyk), Orchestre de chambre de Paris (John Nelson) and Sydney Symphony Orchestra (Vladimir Ashkenazy). Stephen recently performed to a sell out audience for his recital at the International Piano Series at the Queen Elisbaeth Hall in London. In addition, Stephen is a regular soloist at the Verbier and Lugano festivals.

Stephen Kovacevich has enjoyed two long-term relationships with recording companies, first Philips and then EMI.  Great projects of his work with EMI include a compelling series of Schubert Sonatas and a set of the 32 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. He also worked extensively with Colin Davis recording the Piano Concertos of Beethoven and Brahms and most notably Bartok’s Piano Concerto No.2.

In 2009 Stephen Kovacevich released, to unanimous critical praise, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations for Onyx Classics, exactly forty years after his first recording of the work for Philips in 1968. The Financial Times wrote, ’a temperamental, almost explosive approach that resonates with rhythmic and nervous energy but also leaves room for elegance, wit and introspection. Kovacevich’s journey is always engrossing and never less than Beethovenian.’ This recording won the 2009 Classic FM Gramophone Editor’s Choice Award.

Stephen Kovacevich is a committed chamber music player who, from the beginning of his career, collaborated with Jacqueline du Pré for their celebrated recording of Beethoven’s Sonatas No. 3 and 5.  Other past and present partners include Steven Isserlis, Gautier Capuçon, Renaud Capuçon, Kyung-wha Chung, Truls Mørk, Emmanuel Pahud, Anna Larsson, Khatia Buniatishvili, Belcea Quartet, Philippe Graffin, Alina Ibragimova and Martha Argerich.

Here’s the transcript for those who prefer to read my interviews:

Melanie: Celebrated American concert pianist, Stephen Kovacevich, has been performing internationally for over 50 years. He’s renowned for his interpretation of Beethoven, amongst other composers, and I’m thrilled that he’s joining me here at his home today in London for what is my 40th Classical Conversation. Welcome.

Stephen: Thank you.

Melanie: Lovely to chat to you.

Stephen: You, too.

Melanie: I want to start by asking all about your education, how you started, why you started, what was the catalyst, and whether you come from a musical family.

Stephen: Music loving. Father and mother had a very good sound system. We’re talking 1943 or 44, but at that time my father had made quite a bit of money as a fisherman, and he loved music and so did my mother and they bought not a bad sounding system for the time. The first piece I fell in love with was Mozart’s 40, Fortieth Symphony and Meistersinger and Johann Strauss. Those were my loves. And then my grandmother had an upright piano and I started, you know, fooling around on it when I was 5 or 6. And I went to my mother’s choir rehearsal. She sang, and I was a rat, always correcting people for their pitch and this kind of thing. And little by little I started to play. I had an okay teacher in the beginning and then I had a good teacher from about the age of 8 or 9 in San Francisco. I studied with him until I came to London to study with Myra Hess.

Melanie: Right.

Stephen: That’s it, basically.

Melanie: Yeah. That was going to be my next question, which teacher or teachers were an inspiration and helped you-?

Stephen: Well, my Russian teacher who I studied with age 8 to 18, of course he was extremely important. There were some drawbacks, but he gave me the fundamental grammar of music and then Myra Hess was a different order of artist. I mean, she was an artist. You can’t say that about everyone who plays. And at that time I was 18, I was primarily stimulated by late Beethoven and the modest rated young man he is and I fell- I didn’t like Beethoven very much until I heard the Diabelli.

Melanie: That’s interesting.

Stephen: A marvelous recording of Serkin, then I fell for the third period, the late period, and learning the Diabelli took me about a year and Myra, of course, knew it, but she’d never studied it. So, as it were, we learned it together. That period, they’re very, Serkin, Schnabel and Klemperer, involved and there were very few people who understood third period Beethoven and how it’s different from, really different not just lip service different, but really different. And that’s how I started my career at the Wigmore Hall with Berg, Bach and the Diabelli.

Melanie: Interesting.

Stephen: Yeah. So, with ups and downs that’s how it’s been.

Melanie: How did you develop your technique over the years do you think?

Stephen: Just slavery. I’m physically quite gifted, but psychologically I’m not really born to the stage and my Russian piano teacher didn’t help at all.

Melanie: Really?

Stephen: He was quite nervous himself, and so he imparted even more anxiety than I would have had otherwise. However, it’s been a lifelong struggle, and in the last 10 or 15 years it’s been much better. But in terms of the ability to play, just in the way that a lot of people do it. Just slow persistent practice. And I don’t know why, especially when you’re young, why slow practice enables you to play very quickly. I don’t know, but it does.

Melanie: Did you work any studies at all?

Stephen: No. I devised my own, because for me the giant is Rachmaninoff as a pianist and I love him as a composer, too. And he devised his own exercises and someone showed me some of them. Who knew that the person he traveled with, his piano tuner, and I didn’t exactly do those but I started to make up my own, apart from scales and things like that. And it does give you a grammar. And even today it helps, because about 4 or 5 years ago I had a stroke and I thought, “That’s it!” But after the stroke, I played very well and then something weird happened. Who knows what. They call it a TIA.

Melanie: What is that?

Stephen: Temporary isquemic something, and it took me about 9 or 10 months to get over that, and now I’m completely recovered, but one of the ways to get back your-

Melanie: Speed?

Stephen: Your feeling of competence is to go back to scales and things like that. And it’s boring as hell. [Laughter] but it does pay- I don’t spend that much time, but each day

Melanie: Right.

Stephen: I force myself-

Melanie: That’s interesting.

Stephen: I force myself 10 or 15 minutes and it pays off. It pays off.

Melanie: When was that light bulb moment when you thought, “I’ve got to be a pianist” or did that not happen like that?

Stephen: It didn’t quite happen like that. I played from about the age of 7, not very well. I played well when I was 11. I’d give really probably quite a good concert. I played the Ravel concerto when I was 13 at an audition very well and Schumann – I didn’t even think the Schumann was difficult. Can you believe that? And it is difficult! But, I didn’t know. You know, I played it at that time without inhibition. That’s very weird. I don’t know how that works, but there it is. And well just one thing led to another.

Melanie: You’re renowned for Beethoven. We were talking about Beethoven. Can you tell us a little bit about what attracted you to his music and especially your affinity for his late sonatas?

Stephen: Well I think I’ve changed my feeling about what I think he was, the subtext of his life in music, but for all those years when I was besotted by the third period, I always felt there was a subtext of radiance and some sort of inherent faith in life that came through. You get the same impression sometimes in late Mozart with late quintets. Schubert is not exactly like that. I think he takes it on the chin and there aren’t always nice endings. But now I think of Beethoven, I think he was still concerned with those things. I view it now as a hope rather than a certainty. And I just read this wonderful biography, which was of course was trashed in the Gramophone, by a man who about 10 years ago Jan Swafford, he published a book on Brahms, which is one of the best things you’ll ever read about anybody. I’ve given it to all my musician friends and they all actually worship this book, similarly this new one on Beethoven. I sometimes think it’s not the critics think something is bad and then poo on it. I think they secretly know it’s good and that is just what will make them go – certainly in my life as a performer, we’ve all had good reviews for bad performances and bad – you know, upside down – but the most surprising category is to be trashed for really wonderful performances.

And I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Ashkenazy – I was really stunned and proud. I opened up a newspaper and there was an article he’d written to the newspaper, furious because one of the Mr. Magoos of the critical world – You’re too young to know who Mr.Magoo was. He was a character who bumped into everything. He didn’t what he was doing.

Melanie: Okay.

Stephen: Writing the newspaper saying that this was just complete nonsense. I didn’t know he was going to do it but – how did we get on to that? About Beethoven.

Melanie: Yes.

Stephen: Reading this book I now see that, first of all I didn’t know he was in so much physical pain all of his life. He had a lot of really quite unpleasant pains apart from his deafness and he was filthy. As a young man, he had quite a normal – I mean, he had girlfriends and he was apparently not attractive but he probably had a charisma, because there are letters from friends of his saying, “How does this ugly guy get all these pretty girls?” And that was when he was young. And then when he was 30 or I think, all that side, it wasn’t personal anymore, he paid for it. But what was sad at the end was that you had the impression that he’s just suffering and really horribly and that there isn’t – his last words now it’s been reported were, “The comedy is over.” That’s not the words of someone who feels that things have been worthwhile and it’s a statement of some despair really. How he walked around- You ask me why I love him, I mean, I don’t think I would like him as a person. But walking around all this music. You know at one point he had the 9th symphony, the Diabelli, all going at the same time. That must just drive you mad. You know, he would be seen on the streets as shouting and screaming and people avoided him. Sometimes when he was invited to a palace for a proper reading, they wouldn’t let him in because they didn’t know who he was and they thought he was deranged. I don’t think he – and he probably bordered on being an alcoholic. That’s right on the cusp, right on the cusp. Well I mean a genius of geniuses, but he didn’t have a – He had a hard time.

Melanie: Yes.

Stephen: But anyway this – I mean, the energy is simply absolutely astonishing in his music. You don’t have the impression almost, that’s why I dislike Fidelio so much, because when he writes with a voice – it could be for a clarinet. I feel no distinctive difference. And when Mozart writes you have a sensible pleasure, that he loved the voice. Somehow it’s human, not in an intellectual sense. It’s sensual. Beethoven is cerebral. Even his – even the opera, and therefore I dislike him for that. I feel claustrophobic. With the sonatas and the chamber music, there’s nothing to say.

I think, yeah. And I mean, Liszt, what I would’ve given to hear Liszt play the Hammerklavier, for example and he did and he played the one, the third and the fifth piano concerto. And Liszt wrote a very completely perfunctory cadenza for the third piano concerto. It’s so boring. It has none of the flamboyance that you would expect. Beethoven’s is actually, his own cadenza, is much more flamboyant than Liszt’s. But and when Liszt once played the Hammerklavier at one of his soirées – you know, one of the dramas of playing the Hammerklavier is the opening. I don’t know if you know, but it starts with a jump. To my credit, I don’t cheat. I don’t mind playing with the right and the left sometimes, but here I think it’s part of the music. So I take my chances. And most of the time it’s fine. But Liszt avoided the whole thing. Before he played it – I would have loved to have heard it- he did a kind of fantasia of all the themes and it gradually erupted – he improvised it – and then he erupted into [Hums music]. But of course that takes away the danger of [Laughter] of all people I’d love to have heard play Beethoven, Liszt.

Melanie: That’s interesting.

Stephen: Because I’m sure and he was quite strict about metronomes. I do think that metronomes are a mistake in the sense that they’re – Beethoven, he couldn’t hear- so they were based on an internal ear. And if you ask me for example, “How does the Hammerklavier go?” I’d say to you, “[Hums music]” That’s approximately 138. You do that on the piano, it just sounds a bit silly, because it doesn’t have the sound, and that’s all he had. And he was also a control freak.

He was terrified that he would play too slowly. And so he would trouble his poor nephew with the chore of going, “Tic Toc- No, not fast enough! Tic toc, Tic toc” and then finally. But that way totally makes it very funny. He probably waited until the tic toc was as exciting as the music, and then said, “That’s it.” And against all that, the greatest absolutely in a class of its own, Beethoven performances I ever heard were Klemperer, and they were so slow, so politically incorrect. You can imagine he’d be jumped on by the critics today with their authentic Emperor’s new clothes, with one exception. I think there is one who really is a great musician. The others, I’m not so sure. But Klemperer, in any case was not that, he was funerial, but he needed it, it as authentic from him, for concerts with the philharmonic in those days were, devastating, it could be boring, yes. But whatever it was, he was just on fire in the right way. He was really quite frightening.

Melanie: Which of those late Beethoven’s do you really love to play? Do you have a favorite one?

Stephen: I think the one that is the most personal is Op. 110. That’s not the one that I enjoy playing the most. I think I enjoy playing Op. 109 the most.

Melanie: Yes. That’s my favourite. It’s beautiful.

Stephen: I often as a joke say if I could win Wimbledon, I’d give up all the Beethoven sonatas except for Op. 109. I wouldn’t give up 109 to win Wimbledon, but all the others, yes.

Melanie: Which other composers do you love to play?

Stephen: Brahms. I worship Brahms. Schubert. Schubert’s tough, because Schubert is not as lyrical and nice as people seem to think. He can be quite disturbing to work on, because there is no subtext of, you know, the good guy wins. I love Rachmaninoff, always have. I’m now learning some of his pieces and it’s an odd thing to say but I know his music isn’t as great as Mozart, but I love him as much. And my favourite concerto of all, of everybody is Rachmaninoff’s second and then Brahms’s one. And of course Mozart and Beethoven – but they’re not my favourites and – You can make it what you want, but one of the most ridiculously gifted pianists we have today sometimes comes and works here and she admitted that it was the same for her. It poses and interesting question, “What is great? Why is for me the Rachmaninoff second as great as any of them and more so in some ways?” I can’t tell you because you can’t defend yourself. You know, if you were being prosecuted in the court of law you would be actually destroyed. It’s not greater than K.595 of Mozart or K.491, but in some ways it is. And I also admire this man. When he was composing at the time, Stravinsky was there. Schoenberg was there. Stravinsky obviously hated his music, but they met at a dinner in Hollywood, and Stravinsky has the grace that was not his saving characteristic. He writes, “What an awesome man!” and from him that’s really the real thing. I’m sure he didn’t like his music, but he recognized what this man was, and Bartok was much more open. Bartok heard the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and he said, “This is genius.” And you know contemporary composers in the last twenty or thirty, it would seem they only feel secure if they have to trash their immediate predecessors. And it just shows you how – I don’t know what it shows, but it’s ridiculous.

Melanie: Yes. Yes. You’ve often said that nerves have been a problem for concerts.

Stephen: Yes.

Melanie: How have you managed to overcome or do you still worry about it?

Stephen: I still worry about it, but I have ways – First of all, I’ve cut down my repertoire and it’s been on and off all throughout my career. Sometimes working with the slavery that shocks even me and I’m used to slavery. I remember I heard Bartok’s second concerto when I was about 23, 24 and I thought, “What a sensational piece!” and I bought the music, and I wasn’t being coy. I can’t do it, and in those days I occasionally dropped in on Colin Davis and I dropped in and I said, “I just heard this incredible piece and I went out and bought the music. I can never play.” I wasn’t fishing. He was in charge of the BBC and he asked me to do it at a Prom 9 months later. Well, I accepted. I knew I could always cancel it, but I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t try. Twice during that period – thank god I don’t remember which hand – it was paralyzed. I couldn’t hold an orange. I woke up the morning and it looked like this or like this, whichever hand, and I had massage and a lot of treatment. The doctor who I was seeing at the time said, “Well, you can play the first performance. It’ll hurt, but you won’t damage yourself.” It did hurt. It wasn’t the world’s greatest performance, but I got through. The next performance was terrible, and then – you were speaking of nerves – the next performance was live and for a festival opening night. I was so scared that I couldn’t give the BBC – this is with Bartok 2 – a balance test. Everybody had to do it cold, just like that.

And I walked on stage with my speech of abdications saying my hand hurts, you know. And there’s two things that I find very difficult, one is on the third page and a lot of – even people who have much more experience with that kind of music – they wobbled a bit in these parts. It’s not important, but it’s very awkward. And then I had another problem a bit later, and I’d worked all summer on this piece. And Martha Argerich was sitting in the public with another pianist who died, you wouldn’t know him, and they knew about my bête noires in this piece, and when the second one came up, they held each other, and I got through it. And when I got through it I get completely ballistic. And I walked away thinking, “Now I know how to do it.” Well, no. [Laughter] Yes, I know how to do it if you want to work the whole summer on one piece, but you can’t live like that.

Melanie: No.

Stephen: I mean it was an amazing performance and the recording is like that, but you can’t live like that. If I could live my life again, I think I would probably do that. I would have cut out a lot of pieces and just slaved on the things that I did well. On the other hand, I probably wouldn’t have learned some pieces that I learned to do very well, but – nerves have been up and down. Sure, psychologists helped me.

Melanie: Really?

Stephen: Yes.

Melanie: That’s interesting.

Stephen: And a young woman, I was one of her first cases in hypnotism. She was a violin player that became a hypnotist, and it did help but that’s hard work.

Melanie: That was brave.

Stephen: It was hard work. For it to work, you can’t actually be passive. Once you’re at the session, you’re passive. But when you go home and start working in the next week or so, it’s quite active and it’s tough. It’s really quite hard, but it did pay dividends. But then, you know I’m lazy as hell to do that. [Laughter]

Melanie: Do you still have trouble with it or do you feel fine now?

Stephen: I don’t feel fine, but I can cope.

Melanie: You can cope. Yes. Yes. Now, you love teaching.

Stephen: I do. It depends on the student.

Melanie: Of course, and you’ve written a scholarly edition of Schubert’s piano music. Is that right?

Stephen: Well, Howard Ferguson, who was a close friend of Myra Hess and a very good composer and a Bach scholar, but he did an edition of some Schubert and I just added a few notes. I didn’t really do much. But I have done a lot.

Melanie: What do you love about teaching? How do you divide your time? Do you – do you do quite a bit of it?

Stephen: People get in touch and if I know that they’re good.

They really don’t dare to get in touch unless they are good. [Laughter]

Melanie: I bet!

Stephen: And most of them I either know or know of. And even some quartets, I mean great quartets come here and we work on Beethoven, for example. And these are some of the best times in my musical life and if the pianist is – most of them are marvelous – I mean, a staggering amount of people come here who really can play. I mean, they’re not students. They’re the real thing, and those days are marvelous and it’s very interesting sometimes what you can release just with a tiny, tiny push. And you don’t even have to say anything specific. Sometimes you do, but a lot of young musicians have so much inside them that – You know, they’re Asians. They play 3 or 4 times a week, and they don’t have the courage or the sense to say no and then they wonder why they dry up. And then when they dry up, some of them collapse for a time and I hold them responsible, because a few of them are stars and there is actually no reason. They can say no for a year and it won’t make any difference. And then their agents sometimes don’t help. But I spoke to an Agent once who said that he does try to say sometimes and then someone rings up and the person says, “Oh yeah! I love to do that.” And then that week or so he’s gone. But I do think that – I don’t know if it’s true, but I read and I knew him slightly, Horowitz, He played 25-30 concerts a year.

Melanie: Wow!

Stephen: Yeah. Maybe at his peak, but his concerts were events.

Melanie: Yeah, absolutely.

Stephen: and also he didn’t find giving concerts easy. He was very nervous. Whereas, Rubenstein, he was born for the stage. I think Barenboim is born for the stage, but most of us are not. Other people are cool. That’s not exactly being born for the stage, but it means you have that knack of not falling off the high wire. But certainly Horowitz was not like that. Again, probably the most exciting of them all.

Melanie: Yes. Yes. Absolutely.

Stephen: There’s a price.

Melanie: What are your future plans?

Stephen: I’m learning some chamber music that I don’t know. I’m learning some solo Rachmaninoff and my birthday is in October at the Wigmore Hall. My 75th. I can’t believe, I can’t believe it. But they gave me my 70th birthday, and they’re giving me a concert. It’s not quite on the birthday. It’s a few weeks later. So Martha is coming to do the first half, En Blanc et Noir, some Debussy, and then we are playing the Symphonic Dances, and the second part is Schubert E flat Sonata. Could be good.

Melanie: Absolutely. Yes. Amazing. What does playing the piano mean to you?

Stephen: I don’t have an answer to that. [Laughter] It’s like saying, “What’s waking up in the morning?” No. I’d be okay without doing it, but it’s a way of – It’s the primary means of expression.

Melanie: Thank you so much for joining me today.

Stephen: Ok. Thank you!


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

One Comment Add yours

  1. nopiano says:

    A transient ischaemic attack (TIA) or “mini stroke” is caused by a temporary disruption in the blood supply to part of the brain.

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