Igor Levit - Bach, Beethoven, and Beyond
Ravinia summer program cover feature
When a Ravinia audience welcomes 27-year-old Igor Levit for an all-Bach program this summer in his Chicago area debut, they will hear only a small sampling of the many musical styles that have occupied the brilliant young pianist in his short but burgeoning career. He has been a known commodity in Europe for a few years, but domestic audiences have only recently begun to take notice. On the occasion of his North American debut in 2014, the New York Times last year proclaimed “…a major new pianist has arrived”.
Classical music lovers could be forgiven for assuming that the path to stardom is paved with strategic maneuvering by publicity agents and managers. According to this formula, a recording of a Rachmaninoff concerto (faster, cleaner, and more self-indulgent than the last wunderkind version) is followed by designer apparel and lucrative endorsements. While much of Levit’s attention has been devoted to standard repertoire, with a little digging it becomes clear that the pianist’s restless intellect and uncompromising idealism have led him down some surprising musical paths. In a wide ranging interview from his home in Hanover, Levit was quick to emphasize his passion for a broad spectrum of possibilities. “I listen to so much music, and a huge variety of music, from 15th century Renaissance to American hip hop from 2015.”
While Levit’s path to stardom may include some unconventional choices in repertoire, his career was jump-started by early successes on the competition circuit, including a Silver Prize at the 2005 Arthur Rubinstein Competition in Tel Aviv in 2005. Although he was the youngest participant in a crowded field, his versatility was recognized with prizes as the best performer of both chamber music and contemporary music.
The Russian-born pianist moved with his family to Germany at the age of eight, later completing his studies at the Hanover Academy of Music with the highest performance and academic scores in the history of that institution. The uncompromising intellect and unquenchable curiosity that emerged early in his life continue to inform his compelling performances and distinct choices of repertoire.
After inking an exclusive recording deal with Sony Classics in 2013, he recorded a debut disc that featured the five last sonatas of Beethoven, a choice that raised more than a few eyebrows among critics who assume that decades of concertizing are needed before plumbing the depths of this profound music. The gamble payed off handsomely. The recording was universally praised for it’s surprising maturity, structural clarity, and rigorous attention to detail, earning him the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Young Artist award, the BBC Music Magazine Newcomer of the Year award, and the ECHO 2014 for Solo Recording of the Year. I asked if he was bothered by accusations of arrogance for tackling these sonatas at such a young age, with so little life experience from which to draw. He answered politely, though it was clear he was a bit weary of addressing this subject so often.
“As simple as it sounds, the short answer is, why not? For the last couple of years this has simply a major part of my core repertoire. In my particular situation, I never thought about what might be the best move for my career, but rather what was most natural for me at the time. I play all of the Beethoven sonatas, and all are rather demanding. My desire to concentrate on the late sonatas began during my intense study of the Diabelli Variations, which naturally led me down the path of various Beethoven sonatas, and more specifically the late ones. I also heard a performance by John Elliot Gardiner of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, and this changed almost everything for me. It completely altered the way I was working on Diabelli. I soon began to work on Op. 110, 101, and 106. Why shouldn’t the Hammerklavier be suitable for a young man?”
His follow-up disc for Sony also featured works not typically associated with a budding young concert artist, the complete Partitas of J.S. Bach, and the same collection he will tackle at Ravinia. I asked if he has any general preference for a single composer program versus a mixed one.
“There is no preference one way over another. When I decide on a program, I think a lot about how the pieces speak to each other, or at least how I think they speak to each other, which of course is entirely subjective! I don't do single composer programs often - in fact Ravinia will be only the second time I will be doing this particular all-Bach program, and actually I’m not sure that anyone should do it that often, since it’s three hours of music!”
Does the programmatic context affect how you perform, say, a Bach Partita? “Absolutely, there is no question that my performances will vary depending on the rest of the program They couldn’t be more different. If I know that after a Bach Partita I will be playing a piece by Liszt or Prokofiev, the Bach will naturally vary. And vice versa, my Liszt or Shostakovich will sound different coming after Bach than it might coming after a Beethoven sonata, a work by Cage, Bill Bolcom, or whomever. The climate in the room depends very much on the entire musical context. And this is what makes listening to music a new experience each time.”
So does this mean that when you’re preparing a work, you leave open the possibility for flexibility, depending on context?
“Any musician whose goal is to play the same program exactly the same 15 times in a row isn’t dealing with human reality. It’s dangerous, and beyond ridiculous You wake up in the morning as a different person, and you have different experiences during the day. You meet different people, you eat different food. No day is exactly the same, and these experiences affect how music flows through an artist.”
The stylistic variations one encounters in performances of Bach continues to be hotly debated. I wondered what specific performers have helped him formulate his own approach.
“Bach has always been a central component of my listening habits. Fortunately, it seems that we’ve always had great interpreters of Bach, including harpsichordists, violinists, cellists, etc. I have always cherished the Bach Collegium Japan recordings with Ton Koopman. I listened to these for years. and they are certainly ones that I emulate musically.”
At this point in the interview I realized that so far he hasn’t singled out any keyboard players as models. I asked him to expand this seeming reluctance. He hesitates for a moment, perhaps wishing to not leave out any important pianistic models. “Murray Perhaia’s Goldberg Variations are an incredible achievement, and Andreas Staier’s version on harpsichord is amazing.”
If Levit’s tastes seem unusually inclusive, there are some surprising gaps in his repertoire. He rarely performs Chopin, feeling that others engage with this repertoire more persuasively than he could. He is equally reluctant to play Mozart, finding his music to be incompatible with the modern concert grand. If the pianist’s insight into standard repertoire was consistently illuminating, he became particularly animated when the discussion veered toward more contemporary music, including the American composer Frederic Rzewski.
“A few years ago I came across a recording of Rzewski’s ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated.’ The discovery of this amazing piece really shook me. I quickly found a score, and decided not only to add it to my repertoire, but to contact the composer, who has been living in Europe for many years.” Their subsequent meetings not only gave him valuable insight into the massive, hour-long set of 37 variations, Levit mustered the courage to ask for a new piano work for him to premier.
Rzewski’s cycle of “Nanosonatas” for solo piano began life in 2006, and he has since added eight sonatas dedicated to Levit. Their collaborations will continue this season with Levit’s premier performance of the composer’s “Dreams II”.
He has since explored other modern modern music off the beaten track, including the quiet, freely flowing works of Morton Feldman and the politically virulent and populist music of self-described Maoist composer Cornelius Cardew. Levit also maintains a close working relationship such leading German composers as Wolfgang Rihm and Jorg Widmann. He has performed Stockhausen’s Klavierstück VI, but is equally drawn to the work of Renaissance master Josquin and the relatively unheralded 17th century composer George Muffat.
Given the pianist’s recent passions, it’s not surprising that his next recording will consist of three colossal sets of variations: Bach’s Goldberg, Beethoven’s Diabelli, and Rzewski’s “The People United Will Never Be Defeated.” Aside from the identical genre, this may seem like a trio of strange bedfellows. For Levit, it is a natural outgrowth of a rather dizzying array of explorations. “For me, at this point in my life, these are the three most significant sets of piano variations in the repertoire. I love the concept of variations - taking a germ of an idea, beginning a series of explorations, and finally arriving at a conclusion. Very much like life itself!”