Interview with Igor Levit
Igor Levit is giving his debut in Lausanne in two concerts in which he plays Beethoven 5th Piano Concerto with the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Bertrand de Billy.
While still young, Levit has made quite a name in the last years. He has played demanding complex works by the likes of Rzewski and Busoni... as well as showing unusual depth and maturity in classics by Bach and Beethoven. His recordings of the last Beethoven sonatas and the major variations – Goldberg, Diabelli and “The People United” – have received unusual accolades.
He will debut at the Salzburg Festival this summer with two ambitious programs and will play chamber music with the likes of Julia Fischer and Jörg Widmann and concertos with Kirill Petrenko, Sebastian Weigle, Fabio Luisi...
He also maintains a lively twitter feed in which he has taken humanist positions, expressing his views on the wave of migrants and the election of the new President in the United States...
After rehearsing with the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra, he found time to sit down and speak with ConcertoNet.
I. Levit (© Robbie Lawrence)
Is this the first time that you play in the Suisse Romande?
Let me see, I kind of think so. I have visited Geneva, where I have very close friends, but I have not played there. I have also not played in Montreux, where I hope to play one day.
This is the first time I hear you live, so I know you from your recordings. I was impressed by your long floating pianissimo lines.
This is interesting, I am very different when I play and when I do not. When I play, I am quite calm so that keeping something over a long term is integral to me. When I do not play, being calm is not my piece of cake at all. (laughs)
You just played in a rehearsal; do you play the same in the evening?
No. Things change all the time. Every performance is unique, even though I play the same piece. People change, the hall changes. This has nothing to do with the previous concert, for sure.
It is marvelous you are playing the Rweszki Variations. You also played Busoni, Reger... What drives you to these composers and are there some you do not play?
I am not into Chopin although I love his music. I do not play it; there are others who do it very well. Busoni is some kind of hero with his progressive way of thinking and his writing. After Bach, composers like Beethoven, Liszt and then Busoni are heroes to me. My first teacher brought me to Beethoven but it is my teacher Matti Raekallio who introduced me to Busoni. We worked a lot on Beethoven and Matti, who is now teaching in New York, has become a close colleague and friend.
I am a very curious guy and would go to the library or now the Internet. I would listen to one piece and one thing would lead to another. Repertoire decisions are always linked to reading books or visiting exhibitions. I have explored the music of Ronald Stevenson, who is an incredible composer. His most famous work is the Passacaglia on DSCH. It is a 90-minute piece written in 1960, which he presented to Shostakovich. John Ogdon played it often.
I also get inspiration from colleagues. One of my great heroes is Marc-André Hamelin. As a student, I would listen and collect everything he did. He is incredible. I have met him and he is a most wonderful human being.
Could you tell us about yourself?
I was born in Russia. My family and I migrated to Germany end of 1995. I am a full-blood, full-heart European. More than anything else, if there is a term “European musician”, I am glad to be called that. Since then, I have lived in Germany, studying there, and I moved to Berlin a year ago.
How would you characterize a European?
This is a hard, a very hard question to answer these days.
I grew up here in Europe and had the chance to enjoy a magnificent education. I am not speaking about musical education. I had the tremendous chance to travel, not for concert tours which I only did at the age of 23, 24. I am talking about travelling, meeting and hearing incredible people.
I was raised by people who made me believe in the universal idea of Human Rights. It is not only for Germans or whomever, it is a universal attitude – otherwise this is a dead idea. I was raised to believe in the simple thing of equality. I was raised not to be a musician or an artist; I was raised to become a citizen who happens to have become a musician.
The musical education was tremendous but influences – and not only by musicians – I received by travelling far outside of Europe in places like Ethiopia, United States, Southern China... have been huge. I am a child of my country and my continent and very grateful for this, although there are many things happening there which are giving me terrible headaches. But it is my union.
What is happening in Europe is happening in so many countries, Switzerland, France, Netherlands... even the US. What can individuals do?
Individuals can do everything. I am one of 7 billion on this planet so let us all be good human beings who feel responsible for others. Do not be an opportunist. This is the most crucial time imaginable. We have to answer a simple question, which is a huge task: “What are democracy, society, labour... in the 21st century ?” People are nervous, I get that, I am afraid myself but blaming innocents for your fear is simply wrong. And one should not do that.
Do you feel that Europe is as much in danger as other continents?
Of course we are, terribly so. I moved to Berlin, where there was a terrible attack a couple of weeks ago. The way Berliners reacted was very remarkable and very thoughtful. The city is a melting pot par excellence. Eleven people lost their life in the most violent way. Many other people just “freak out” and say that we are at war. This is not true, we are not at war. We have a justice system.
I am in touch with a young man from Syria. I met him in a refugee camp in May and I am trying to help as much as I can. He is now in Belgium. He came from Aleppo and he is a wonderful young man. After this attack, he sent me several messages saying that he was devastated by this logic of killing people.
It is all very complicated and we are at a huge turning point. Obviously this will change also the music world because we cannot close our eyes just because we play Mozart and Beethoven. It is up to us to decide which direction to go.
Igor Levit’s website
[Interview with Antoine Lévy-Leboyer]