Carnegie Hall became Levitown last night, as Igor Levit, the Russian-German pianist, came for another recital. Despite January (when crowds are usually thin) and despite a pandemic, the audience was healthy. That is, the recital was well attended.
Levit began with Beethoven—the Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109. I have written so much about Levit’s Beethoven over the last several years, I think I will spare the reader, skipping on to the next piece. Maybe I can quote something I wrote in 2020:
I’m not much of a ranker: This one’s best, this one’s second-best. Music is not tennis. We don’t rank them. A range of musicians have a great deal to give, and we value them all. But I think of a line that Dave Wasserman uses. He is an American political journalist who specializes in House races. On an election night, when he is ready to call a race, he says, “I’ve seen enough.” And then he says that Smith or Jones or whoever has won.
In that spirit, let me say, I’ve heard enough: Igor Levit is the greatest Beethoven pianist I have ever heard, on recording or in the flesh. No disrespect to Backhaus, Brendel, or anyone else. If Beethoven could hear what Levit is doing, I think he’d say, eyes wide, “Yes, that is what I have in mind.”
Actually, before moving on, I might say a few words (additional ones). Levit would not play a Beethoven sonata—or anything else, probably—the same way twice. Some fundamentals are in place, sure: rigor. But Levit allows for spontaneity and mood. Last night, his Op. 109 was unusually soft and introspective. It was also beautiful and intelligent—amazingly so.
After his Beethoven, Levit played another favorite composer of his, Fred Hersch, the American born in 1955. Hersch is a favorite of Conrad Tao, the young American pianist, too. Last month, Tao played a piece by Hersch in a recital at the 92nd Street Y. For Levit, Hersch has written a piece called Variations on a Folksong. That song is “Shenandoah”—which has been maybe America’s most popular and beloved folksong over the last couple of generations?
Just about every classical singer—American classical singer—sings “Shenandoah.” I think I like Marilyn Horne best (not that I’m a ranker).
In a composer’s note, Fred Hersch writes that he has composed “twenty variations in a wide variety of approaches that play off both the melody and the harmony.” Before starting to play, Levit arranged the music on his stand. Unless my eyes deceived me, he had both a computer tablet and regular old sheet music. About the variations, I will make a few general remarks.
The variations are part classical, part easy listening, part jazz (or soft jazz). Sometimes you can detect the melody—“Shenandoah”—sometimes not. The variations are on the gentle side (like the song itself, I suppose). Often they are pretty. (“Pretty” sounds like an insult. It ought not to be. Pretty is pretty good.) This is not a showpiece; it does not require virtuosity; it requires tenderness and appreciation. One variation is for the left hand alone.
For me, the variations went on a bit long, and my mind might have wandered a bit. But, as regular readers know, this is often the case, and I would like to hear the work again, absorbing it further. Fred Hersch is obviously a sincere composer, and a gifted one.
After intermission, Igor Levit played Wagner. Wagner? Yes, a transcription of the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde. By Liszt? No, by another Hungarian, Zoltán Kocsis, the late, great pianist. It is now 2022; Wagner wrote Tristan und Isolde in the 1850s; and the opening measures are still strange, to the point of being shocking.
Levit knows the arc of this piece (the Prelude, I mean, although he probably knows the arc of the entire opera). He played it with great care (though not with an unmusical cautiousness). He played, as usual, as if he were engaged in the most important thing in all the world. There is an abundance of music in Levit, and he has the technical means to express it.
Not letting the audience applaud—which some tried to do—Levit went directly into the next piece: the Liszt Sonata. This has been the fashion for the last ten years or so. Performers move from one piece to another, without pause, probably trying to make a musicological point. Many audience members are confused, not realizing that another piece has begun. “Where are we again?” This is a stupid fashion, and I look forward to its passing. It does an injustice to composers and audiences alike.
Anyway, the Liszt Sonata. How do you want it? Intense; demonic (though not nuts); kaleidoscopic; gripping. Igor Levit has no problem delivering. Moreover, he brought an unusual Classical discipline to the sonata. I had never heard it so lightly pedaled. So unsoupy. One of the most striking moments of the sonata was the start of the fugue: positively cat-like.
I should note, as an aside, that there were many cellphone rings and other disturbances last night. Perhaps this cannot be helped. But are audiences now looser, more unruly, than before?
Levit played a single encore—and a right one. It’s hard to have the Prelude without the Liebestod—and Levit played Liszt’s treatment of the Liebestod, the conclusion of Wagner’s Tristan.
I’m sorry I missed Godowsky, Hofmann, Rachmaninoff, and many another pianist from that era. Heck, we can go further back than that: I’m sorry I missed Liszt, and, further back, Beethoven. Their hearers were very lucky. But we are lucky, too, to be living in the age of Levit, and Sokolov, and Volodos, and others.