Igor Levit has not had a very long career—born in 1987, he is thirty-one years old—but that he is a great pianist is obvious to anyone who hears him. You can hear him a second or third time, just to confirm. On Friday night, Levit played a recital in Zankel Hall.
His was a strange program, a throwback of a program, filled with cerebral Romanticism. With the “visionary,” if you like.
Levit came out in the standard black pajamas, but with a twist: some blue in the front. I’m glad to see a little variation in the sad, austere standard.
He first played the Chaconne from Bach’s violin partita in D minor, in the left-hand arrangement by Brahms. I always associate this piece with Leon Fleisher, whom circumstance forced to play with his left hand alone for many years. Levit played it about as well as can be imagined.
I often speak of “weightedness” in piano playing—the application of the right weight. Levit is a master of this. Related to it is phrasing, and he is a master of that, too. There is seldom a wrong accent. Every note is in its right relation to the others.
Another word I think of is “interlocking.” Levit has a genius for making the notes interlock. They fit with one another, and if they need to stand out, they do that, too.
Levit makes me think of a jewelry-maker, or diamond-cutter, bent over his gems.
He played the Chaconne with taste and intensity. It was always pianistic, rather than violinistic. That is, he knew that he was playing a piano piece, and he did not try to imitate the violin on the piano. When the piece shifted into D major, the effect was sublime. And Levit did some unusual blurring in chromatic passages toward the end. Marvelous.
The Chaconne complete, he moved on to a rarity by Busoni—most pieces by Busoni are rarities, aren’t they?—namely the Fantasy after Bach, composed in 1909. (You see a pattern here, don’t you? Composers who have arranged, and transformed, Bach.) Busoni dedicated this piece to the memory of his father, Ferdinando Busoni.
Levit played it with intense concentration. He does this: concentrate intensely. And that makes you, in the audience, concentrate too. Levit is never on autopilot, so to speak. He is never on cruise control. He is always acutely engaged in what he is doing.
I think of a jewelry-maker, or diamond-cutter, bent over his gems.
From Levit, Busoni’s Fantasy was logical and musical, in equal parts. Then the pianist moved on to a Schumann work, without pausing, as he often does, and as other musicians are doing, in a trend—a trend I hope to see the end of, soon. It is no more than a conceit. It can also be a bother, as audiences don’t know what piece a performer is on.
If pieces are related to one another—if one leads logically to the next—audiences will see that, or hear it, without a trick from the performer.
In any event, Levit played Schumann’s very last piano work, the Variations on an Original Theme, also known as the Ghost Variations. Never have they been more affecting. All the emotion was internal, with no outward display. Levit was simply a transparency for the music, and for Schumann.
There is a cliché: “to find the truth of the music.” This is what Levit does.
After intermission, he played Liszt’s Solemn March to the Holy Grail, taken from Wagner’s Parsifal. This is one of my favorite piano pieces of the Romantic era. I particularly recommend the recording of Idil Biret, a Turkish pianist. Do you know how many times I have heard the Solemn March in recital? In a lifetime of concertgoing? Just once—on Friday night, from Levit.
He kept the pulse—this is crucial in the Solemn March. But neither was the playing rigid. Instead, it was inevitable, and it had its hypnotic, transcendent effect. The music could hardly have been more beautiful. (And the tremolos were less vulgar than you have a right to expect in Liszt.)
Levit closed the printed program with more Liszt, and more Busoni, in a way: the latter’s piano transcription of a Liszt organ work, the Fantasy and Fugue on “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam,” S. 259. To play this piece, you have to be cerebral, soulful, and virtuosic, all three—hugely virtuosic. Whom does that sound like? Like Liszt himself, of course. And like Busoni. It is also true of Igor Levit.
I go back to this question of weightedness—touch, you could also call it, I suppose. Or a feel for the piano, a feel for the keyboard. Levit has this quality in spades, and it helped him here, as pretty much everywhere.
He was demonic and angelic (like the Fantasy and Fugue, and like Liszt, and like Busoni). He was heroic and dedicated. When he played triple forte, he did so without banging. The sound was huge, and there was no bang, no pound, whatsoever. The Fugue was both snazzy and martial. At its best, the entire work is wizardly and visionary, and so it was on Friday night.
The duration of the final note was exactly right. It was not cut off at random. Levit did it consciously. Is that so uncommon? Yes, actually—you might be surprised.
He played one encore, and it was one of the longest and weirdest encores in the history of piano-recital encores. Before playing it, Levit told the audience that the piece had meant a lot to him in recent times. It was by a composer he has championed, Frederic Rzewski, the American born in 1938, and it was “A Mensch,” from Dreams, Part I.
Speaking of composing: Does Igor Levit do this? He seemed to be communing with Liszt and Busoni—Rzewski, too—those pianist-composers, those virtuoso-composers (yes, Rzewski too). Let’s see what he busts out with in the future . . .