Recording of the Week Igor Levit plays music by Bach, Beethoven, and Rzewski
I feel more than a little remiss that this is the first time this week's artist has appeared in Presto's weekly despatches: if anyone lives up to the overused soubriquet 'one of the finest performers of their generation', it's surely the young Russian-born pianist Igor Levit, who shot to international fame in 2013 with his solo recording debut of nothing less than the late Beethoven sonatas. Those accounts were widely praised for their imagination, sense of architecture and technical wizardry, winning the BBC Music Magazine's Newcomer Award that year and making the instrumental shortlist at the Gramophone Awards a few months later.
Now this omnivorous and inquisitive musician is back with a mighty triptych of variations: more Beethoven, more Bach (he followed his Beethoven sonatas with an equally acclaimed disc of the Partitas in 2014), and Frederic Rzewski's titanic cycle based on the Chilean protest song 'The People United Will Never Be Defeated', which took the Wigmore Hall by storm last Christmas. It's a formidable work, taking in Lisztian bravura, echoes of the Second Viennese School, elements of jazz and blues, and neo-Baroque toccata-style writing, not to mention extra-musical effects such as whistling, groaning and banging the piano-lid, as well as including the opportunity for two lengthy improvised cadenzas (appropriately enough, Levit introduces whispers of the Marsellaise, plus, if I'm not mistaken, Brahms's little song about a ladybird, 'Marienwürmchen'). If this all sounds potentially sprawling on paper, in Levit's hands it acquires remarkable coherence and a granite-like majesty.
Levit's Diabelli Variations brim with exuberance, vitality and often humour, tumbling into one another with unstoppable energy but with such lightning-like shifts of character that the overall experience is exhilarating and exhausting. As one might expect from a man who programmed this pianistic Everest back-to-back with the Rzewski in live concerts, and who's quoted in the booklet-note as saying he'd rather not sleep than miss anything exciting, Levit is seemingly indefatigable, but personally I needed a cup of tea and a sit down once we crossed the finishing-line!
The Goldberg Variations were recorded just two months ago (I recall our colleagues from Sony visiting in the summer with press copies of the Beethoven and Rzewski just as Levit was going into the studio for the Bach!), and indeed Levit only gave his first public performance of the work earlier this year. Though he plays the same modern concert grand that was used for the other two cycles, his variety of touch and colours here is such that after the first four variations I found myself checking the booklet to make sure that there wasn't more than one instrument involved: there are sections which sound almost fortepiano-like in their clarity.
Whereas in the other two sets of variations Levit's powerful musical personality bursts forth with such presence that the music almost seems like it's being extemporised on the spot, there's a sense here of him taking more of a back seat – that's not to say there's anything detached or impersonal about the interpretation (he seems to be incapable of being either), but there's an almost meditative quality about the cycle that borders on the sublime. The sense of catharsis when the aria returns at the close was, for me, more tangible than in any other performance I've experienced.
Levit returns to the Wigmore on 5th November to perform the Diabellis, along with music by Georg Muffat and Shostakovich (the concert marks the beginning of his 'Perspectives' series at the Hall). If you're within spitting distance of London, beg, borrow or steal one of the few remaining tickets; I've just booked mine.
Igor Levit (piano)
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