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Visionary playing

New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
02/20/2017 -  & March 9 (Santa Barbara), 12 (Chicago), May 11 (Reggio Emilia), 2017
Dmitri Shostakovich: Preludes and Fugues, op. 87: No. 10 in C-sharp Minor, No. 4 in E Minor & No. 12 in G-sharp Minor
Frederic Rzewski: Dreams, Part II (US Premiere)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Thirty-Three Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, op. 120

Igor Levit (piano)

I. Levit (© Tina Fineberg)

Some weeks ago, I wrote in my not quite ecstatic review about a pianist who gave me a foretaste of rough-sailing after barely a few measures of music. Well, the reverse is sometimes possible too. After a few measures of the Prelude No. 10 in C-sharp minor which opened Igor Levit’s recital, I knew that we were going to experience an uncommon musician and pianist. Until then, Levit was known to me only from his CDs as a performer of the late piano sonatas of Beethoven and they were excellent indeed. Nothing prepared me for his intriguing program at Zankel Hall. Not too many pianists program Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues, although they are his best piano music and by far the best of that sort after the canon of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. But an even larger surprise was to hear Rzewski new composition Dreams, Part II, until I learned that this composer has in this pianist his next great champion after the American Ursula Oppens, who was in attendance that evening. She, who is an undisputed master of modern repertory, declared during the intermission that though she has not performed that particular work, she couldn’t have played it better. Quite a magnanimous statement from an older and so much more experienced colleague!

The Russian born pianist, who now makes his home in Germany, chose a few of the darker-hued pairs in the Shostakovich opus 87. It is perhaps worth reminding the reader that the composer began work on the cycle in 1950 after coming back from Leipzig (then part of East Germany), where he was attending and adjudicating the Bach Piano Competition and Festival which commemorated the 200th anniversary the death of J. S. In Leipzig, he heard a young Muscovite pianist named Tatiana Nikolayeva, who not only impressed him with her playing (she won the competition), but who later became his dedicatee of the entire cycle. At the peak of Stalin’s terror the composer, who seemed to be always either adored by or in the crosshairs of the Soviet authorities, in an attempt to keep his sanity started work on 24 contrapuntal pieces that would be modeled on Bach’s canonic cycle. Nikolayeva would visit his apartment and was given a new prelude and fugue to learn almost weekly. Shostakovich worked at a feverish pace and completed the “24” between October of 1950 and March of 1951. Needless to say, Nikolayeva was the first pianist to perform the set as a whole, though other famous Soviet era pianists included them in their repertory.

Levit seems to have an ideal touch for those pieces: lucidity, a lean, clear sound and the ability to delineate strands of polyphony made him an appealing performer who also showed energy and passion in the obsessive G-sharp Minor fugue. The three presented by Levit of the 24 made me eager to hear him in the whole cycle.

Rzewski’s suite of four pieces Dreams Part II (co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall) were written in 2014 and received its world premiere during Levit’s recital. The work impressed me by its imaginative treatment of the piano, not to mention the engaged, authoritative performance. Being an old cynic, I had to ask myself if Mr. Rzewski had not seen Akira Kurosawas “magical realistic movie of the same name”, whether his composition would be any shorter or less effective. The program blurb mentions “folk-like innocence” (OK, there was some) to “apocalyptic intensity” (I would probably have recognized it had I known the meaning of the words). This is an impressive suite that explores timbral possibilities of the piano, with descriptive writing like buzzing trills in “Butterflies”, and then goes into contrapuntal segment which suddenly made me realize that this is the strain that ties together all the works in the program. On first hearing, it sounded like some other works of Rzewski in sense that in spite of the thorny, technically super-challenging and modernist writing, it is still eminently listenable and I wouldn’t mind acquainting myself better with the work when/if it will be recorded. The concluding Toccata, which starts innocently with a little nursery song, has moments that bring to mind Prokofiev but on steroids; perhaps we always need to reach back to find earlier compositions as a comparison. And then the composer-activist goes back to the patriotic tune “This land is your land”. The composer joined Mr. Levit on stage for a hearty round of well-deserved applause. And yes: this land is still our land and it was “made for you and me as long as you are here legally”.

During the intermission, a friend and critic observed that during the second half of the recital I will be on familiar ground: “You play the piece, you know every note!”. My answer was that I DON’T like to feel that I know every note of a composition that both the artist and I have in our repertory. I much prefer to be surprised, to be shown that I still don’t know all the possible interpretive options. Well, Igor Levit almost did it by offering a very personal, deeply felt, deeply though out version of the Diabelli Variations. In my concert going career, I have been privileged to hear live perhaps the most prominent interpreters of that enigmatic set which is sometimes called a compendium of variation technique. Among them were Richter, Sokolov, Brendel, Charles Rosen, Rudolf and Peter Serkin and lately Sir András Schiff, who finally added this work to his ever expanding repertory. I would place Levit’s concept of interpretation – and very performance – with those just mentioned giants. Instrumentally, he displayed control of touch and dynamics and achieved effects that seem nearly impossible to negotiate on the modern piano. Levit interprets Beethoven’s markings very carefully in articulation, dynamics and first and foremost in his approach to tempo. Here, he obviously takes the composer’s indications at face value and some variations were taken at a rather extreme tempo. Fortunately, with his clarity of articulation and rather lean tone, Levit manages to pay those fast segments without any sign of strain. More importantly, some of the slower variations such as Var. 14 were not dragged as sometimes happens with other “profound interpreters”.

Musicians, especially those who show keen attention to the composer’s intentions, spend a lot of time trying to figure out what the composer thought, how he imagined his music to sound, and what might he have wanted. Ultimately, we will never know, especially in the case of Beethoven’s late piano works such as the sonatas or Diabelli Variations. That being said, there were moments in Levit’s reading that made me think: good old Ludwig would probably have loved it!

If there was one moment that impressed me more than any other in this 57 min. long work, it would have to be the few measures that leads from the explosive double fugue (Var. 32) to its finale “Tempo di Menuetto” (Var. 33); here that penultimate variation breaks off as if in mid-sentence and it’s followed by a magnificent transition with an audacious modulation that for me has remained a moment of awe and constant fascination. Levit did something that few pianists attempt and successfully suspended and stretched time by letting the chords ring and the dissonances resolve back to innocent C major.

Having said all that, this visionary interpretation would not necessary be mine, but that doesn’t mean that I would not give a lot to be able to play like that! Levit persuaded me with his farsighted and involved reading which caused me to reconsider my own concept of some variations. He also convinced me that I really don’t know the piece as well as I thought, and this is about the highest compliment one musician can pay to another.

What does one suppose to offer as an encore after a piece as daunting and long as the Diabelli Variations? Should it be perhaps one of the shortest Bagatelles, op.119 that takes about 15 seconds to play? Or maybe better yet just dispense with an encore? Levit thought otherwise and chose a wonderful little “Waltz-Scherzo” from Dances of the Doll by Shostakovich: it was droll, funny, simple and silly enough to stand along the Diabelli’s own “schusterfleck” (cobbler’s patch), as Beethoven disdainfully called the theme for his monumental variations. What can I say: a thinking man encore...

Roman Markowicz



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