October 12, 2015 / 11:05 AM / 2 years ago

Pianist Kovacevich beats stroke, nerves to celebrate 75th

3 Min Read

LONDON (Reuters) - California-born pianist Stephen Kovacevich, who made his public debut at age 11, has a lot to be thankful for as he celebrates his 75th birthday this week -- including being alive.

He and his former wife, the virtuoso Martha Argerich, will play piano duets at London's Wigmore Hall, a box set of his recordings has been reissued and, perhaps most significantly, seven years have now passed since he suffered a near-fatal stroke.

"I'm incredibly lucky, I've made a total recovery. That isn't everyone's fate," the affable Kovacevich told Reuters in an interview at his flat in north London, where his Steinway grand dominates one room and a stereo dominates the room below.

Kovacevich has talked to other interviewers about how his medical emergency began with a loss of some ability in his left hand and escalated with a loss of velocity in his right. It culminated with his doctors in London sending him a text message saying he had to come in that night for a Pacemaker implant.

A few days later he had the full-blown stroke, which initially left him unable to speak.

"I thought, that's it for me, I'm going to be like this for the rest of my life," he said. "But I could play, not fantastically. And two weeks later I played (Beethoven's) Emperor Concerto, not fantastically, but it was good."

So was it that famous, if not scientifically proven, notion that musicians' brains are wired differently, that helped him recover?

All Kovacevich knows is that when he left the hospital, a specialist told him: "When you go home, you turn the key in your apartment, you go to the piano and you start."

"So there must be something about practicing that keeps the brain working ... there probably is something, it may be true," he said.

Piano aficionados worldwide will rejoice that Kovacevich made it -- and keeps going. The recording he made of Beethoven's challenging "Diabelli Variations" in 1968 after he triumphed with it at a London recital is rated one of the best -- perhaps rivaled only by one he made some 40 years later, which some critics rank even higher.

"The second one is wild," Kovacevich said, clearly relishing recent acclaim for his later version.

What some of his admirers may not realize is how hard it has been for Kovacevich to perform at all. Like many performers, he suffers from severe -- and unpredictable -- bouts of stage fright.

"There have been times when I walked off" stage, Kovacevich said, adding it had happened only twice, years ago, and he feels better able to cope, having talked to a sports psychologist.

"The coach takes care of the tennis, but the sports psychologist, I know one, and he says, 'My job is when the person is taking a penalty I get his mind to think it's at least a half-filled glass and not a half empty glass'."

"That helps," Kovacevich said.

Writing by Michael Roddy; Editing by Richard Balmforth

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