Igor Levit. Photo: Ruby Washington

Some years ago—five? ten? twenty?—“relevant” became one of those bogus words. It is not so much a word as a tic or a pose. The first sentence of Igor Levit’s bio tells us that he is “one of the most relevant pianists of his generation.”

What does that mean? It means nothing, frankly—except that the bio-writer thinks Levit is cool.

As I have often complained, bios in music seldom contain biographical information. They seldom tell you where the person is from, for example—what his nationality is. I can say this for Levit’s bio, however: it has a couple of clues, including, “At home in Berlin, Mr. Levit plays on a Steinway Model D concert grand piano . . .”

According to his Wikipedia entry, Levit is “Russian-German.” He was born in the Soviet Union and moved with his family to Germany when he was a child. In any event, he played a recital at Zankel Hall on Friday night.

He began with preludes and fugues by Shostakovich—three of them, three pairs (all in minor keys, by the way). This has been a good period for Shostakovich preludes and fugues. Another pianist, Daniil Trifonov, played some during his Carnegie Hall recital in December.

Levit came out with music (sheet music) and a page-turner. Other pianists have done this, most prominently Hess and Richter, I would say. The first pair from Shostakovich was the Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp minor. I believe that the prelude mimics the Prelude in E flat from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier.

Enough of my musicological musings. On to a few general remarks about Levit’s playing of his Shostakovich.

That playing was thoughtful, but also somewhat earnest. Sober. Virtually academic. The preludes and fugues sounded as much like studies as like pieces of music. Levit did not show much of a singing line, and his playing of the subject—a subject of a fugue—was often blunt. He sometimes veered into thudding and pounding.

If we’re talking about nationalities, this playing was more German (or Germanic) than Russian.

By the way, I was sitting on the extreme right of Zankel Hall, next to the “Zankel subway,” as I call it. It is loud over there. Very.

After his last fugue, Levit thwarted applause—and launched into the next piece, a new piece. People do this. It is another fashion. (Like the word “relevant”?) They like to make some intellectual or musicological point by launching into the next piece, without pause, without applause.

I find this maddening, or laughable: nothing but a conceit.

The new piece was by Frederic Rzewski, an American composer. It is called Dreams, Part II. I will write about it in a forthcoming “New York Chronicle” for the magazine.

On the second half of Levit’s program was a single work: Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. For this, Levit had no sheet music and no page-turner.

His playing of the theme was fast. Too fast, for my taste, depriving the theme of some of its character, principally its jauntiness. But Levit made a defensible choice.

The initial variations were lightly pedaled and distinctive. They were also somewhat brave, I thought. Levit was willing to let the music be exposed, in this unusually exposing hall. (It is a “loud” hall.) He smothered or blurred nothing. The music was crunchy, and just a little stiff, maybe. Fans of Brendel, Serkin, et al.—and they are legion—would have loved it.

Levit was emphatic, very emphatic, and too much so, I think. The thing about Beethoven: he has written that quality in. You don’t have to go to war for him.

On the whole, Levit was very brisk, and also business-like. But he was not unmusical. Oh, no. Levit maintained a focus and he maintained a unity. The variations were one piece, not thirty-three different pieces or even related ones. One piece.

Indulge me in a joke: Levit may not have had a page-turner, but the piece, in his hands, was a page-turner.

Now indulge me in an aside, please: Beethoven absolutely loved C major. He reveled in it. Thrived in it. Went to town in it, over and over, as in the Diabelli Variations. Has any composer ever loved a key more than Beethoven loved C major? (Of course, Bach, Mozart, and Wagner, among others, had the same love.)

At some point, I stopped reviewing Levit and just listened to him. Him and Beethoven. I marveled. Levit was completely assured, not least in his rhythm. Let me single out a variation: the Don Giovanni one, the one in which Beethoven toys with a tune from that opera. From this pianist, it was extraordinarily well calibrated.

In comedy, politics, and other fields, we speak of timing. We don’t speak of it in music. But let me suggest that Levit has great timing. (This is related to rhythm.) Consider the following aspect of playing the Diabelli Variations.

There is an art to knowing how much time to take between the variations. This makes a difference in the music. Levit is a master of this art, and much else.

He understands the Diabelli Variations inside out. Yet he did not intellectualize them but rather let them unfold irresistibly, artistically. I have said that he was “crunchy.” But he was also smooth, when required. (Sounds like I’m talking about peanut butter.) The ending of the work was elegantly matter-of-fact. Perfect.

Ladies and gentlemen, I could not have told you, after the Shostakovich, that Levit could play this way. I was totally unprepared for it. I had heard that Levit was great. I had heard ecstatic reports. It’s true, it’s true. His performance of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations was a feat of understanding, affinity, technique, musicality, and stamina (mental stamina, mainly). It was a peak pianistic experience in my concertgoing life. I left the hall feeling high.

Maybe that happens to you often. (Lucky you!) To me, not so much.