Before doctors cut into his head, he was a virtuoso. Audiences marveled at his speed, his strength, his ability to thunder at the keys. A Soviet-trained prodigy, Alexei Sultanov won the gold medal at the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition at 19, the youngest in history to do so. Like a rock star, with a mane of unruly hair, he played to hysterical fans across Europe and the Far East.
If he were awake, Sultanov would not be surprised to find himself tethered to machines in a hospital room. He had spent much of his childhood in quarters like this, doctors ministering to the cuts and bruises he repeatedly inflicted on the same dexterous hands that would win him worldwide acclaim.
But this was different. In the earliest hours of Feb. 27, 2001, five strokes swept through his brain, deadening the left side of his body, blinding his left eye and rendering him mute. For hours after surgery, Sultanov's wife, Dace, wondered whether her husband would survive.
Then, in the midst of the hospital room's stillness, she noticed a twitch in his fingers. At first the gestures seemed random--a forefinger trembling, a pinky fluttering, a thumb quavering, to no apparent purpose.
Finally a pattern emerged. The unconscious pianist appeared to be fingering a keyboard.
On a hunch, his wife brought a tape deck to Sultanov's hospital room the next day and softly played his own recording of Schubert's Impromptu in A-Flat. Immediately, his right hand again began phrasing strands of melody in thin air.
This haunting gesture left his wife to wonder whether his music would be entombed in his nearly motionless body, whether the small but muscular fingers that once had shaped scores of Beethoven and Brahms might ever play a simple tune again.
Or whether he even would want to.
GENIUS IN ITS INFANCY
Alexei Sultanov was barely 6 months old when he began striking the keys of an upright piano parked inches from his crib in his parents' three-room apartment in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, then a Soviet republic.
Not long after, when his mother sang a tune to him, Sultanov hummed it back to her flawlessly.
"I was in shock," recalled his mother, Natalia Sultanov, seated last summer in the family's cramped Moscow apartment, a 5-foot-high banner from her son's 1990 Carnegie Hall debut dominating the living room.
"At that moment, I said: `We are doomed. We are destined to be slaves of this child the rest of our lives.'"
A professional violinist, Natalia Sultanov instantly recognized her son's gift, which each day became more apparent to her and husband Faizul, a concert cellist.
By age 2, before Alexei could talk, he played exquisite melodies on that Soviet-brand Red October keyboard, astonishing family and friends. Sultanov's ear was so keen to the nuances of music that he would cry when he heard a sad, minor-key melody unfold on the radio or in the park near their apartment.
"It broke your heart," recalled Natalia Sultanov, who often paid street musicians to stop playing--or at least to change keys--to calm her hypersensitive son.
Though his mother envisioned him as the next Jascha Heifetz and tried to teach him on a tiny violin, he objected violently.