Monday, November 5, 2018

A Memorable Afternoon with Igor Levit

Pianist Igor Levit came into town this past weekend and gave us a recital under the auspices of the Vancouver Recital Society that will be long remembered, not only for his incredible pianism and musicality, but also for the originality of his programming.

Levit began his performance with the rarely played transcription, for left hand alone, of Bach’s monumental Chaconne in D minor, BWV 1004, by Johannes Brahms. In many ways, the Brahms transcription is closer to the original violin solo in terms of musical texture as well as the high austerity conveyed by the music. Naturally it (quite deliberately) lacks the range of pianistic Technicolor that the more popular Busoni transcription offers. Levit does not try to mask the utter starkness of the music, but played the music with naturalness – really allowing the music to speak for itself - and with great attention to voicing and clarity of texture. 

In Harold Schonberg’s highly entertaining - albeit highly subjective – book The Great Pianists, he writes of the piano playing of Ferruccio Busoni, “chords like cast bronze, glittering runs, the mighty roaring of the arpeggios….” He adds that Busoni was capable of building up “a climax that reached the extreme limit of what is possible to a pianist, an avalanche of sound giving the impression of a red flame rising out of marble. His intellectual control was remorseless.” 

I was reminded of Schonberg’s words when I heard Levit play the two Busoni works on the programme – Fantasia after J. S. Bach, KiV 253 and Busoni’s arrangement of Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale Ad nos ad salutarem undam. In these two massive works, Levit demonstrated utter control of every musical and technical element. I could not help thinking that this must have been what Busoni sounded like when he played. 

It was obvious that we were in the presence of not just a talented pianist, but also a musician with a remarkable musical mind. 

In both works, Levit drew from the widest range of tonal and sonic palette. I had not heard such pianissimos as I did yesterday. In the climatic passages, when the Steinway had seemingly reached the limits of its sonic abilities, the artist remained in control of the sound, and gave the impression that there was still something in reserve. The Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale Ad nos ad salutarem undam is a massive uninterrupted 30-minute work. Under the wrong hands, it can come across as a rambling series of (albeit beautiful) musical moments. Levit held the work together, from the first note to last, and made us aware of the logic and architecture of the work. 

Robert Schumann wrote his Variations on an Original Theme in E-flat major(“Ghost Variations”), WoO 24 two years before his death, and the music does convey a strange and haunting beauty, leaving no doubt as to its valedictory nature. Levit played this work with a beautiful understatement and an understanding of the fragility of the music. He offered a different, but equally remarkable, interpretation from Sir Andras Schiff’s memorable performance of the same work last season.

I had the same reaction to the artist’s playing of Liszt’s transcription of Richard Wagner’s Solemn March to the Holy Grail from Parsifal. Levit seemed to have deliberately down play the virtuosic elements of the work, not an easy thing to do. The solemnity of the music came across from the first soft octaves in the left hand, and he slowly built the music to a shattering climax. In the last appearance of the “Dresden Amen”, Levit played it almost like an apparition. 

Yesterday’s recital once again reminded us of the magic that can only be conjured in a live musical performance. Even with the incredible high standard of piano playing and music making, it was not the kind of performance that prompts screaming ovations and multiple encores. It was obvious, though, that every member of the audience was in communionwith the music, and sensed the purpose and message of the composers, through the mind and hands of the performing artist. 

Patrick May

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