Over the weekend, Igor Levit pulled off an amazing feat, or stunt, you might say. Levit, recall, is the Russian-German pianist born in 1987. He played Vexations, a little, half-page piece by Satie. What’s the big deal? you may ask. Well, the composer directed that the piece by played 840 times in a row. It took Levit about fifteen and a half hours.
Erik Satie was a Frenchman, living from 1866 to 1925. He was a very odd duck—and a talented duck. His most famous piece is the Gymnopédie No. 1. (Hear it here, played by the pianist Philippe Entremont.) What’s a gymnopédie? It has something to do with naked Greeks, dancing. In any event, the Gymnopédie No. 1 is a beautiful, original little piece, and it will last forever, presumably.
Vexations is a beautiful and original little piece too—I’m talking about just the half a page, played once. Why should it be played fourteen times, to say nothing of forty, four hundred, or 840? Now we enter the realm of the psychological. According to reports, Igor Levit tied his marathon performance to the pandemic, and the challenges of living in such a period.
To see Levit engaged in Vexations, go here. Whatever else we may think of the piece, and its numbing, pulverizing, crazifying repetition, I think we can agree it’s well named.
I write about Levit in my chronicle, published in the current issue of the magazine. Since the early days of the shutdown, he has been giving “house concerts”—recitals from home—over Twitter. I have said that he reminds me a little of Myra Hess, who boosted British morale, and kept music going, during the war.
About a week and a half ago, I had a little post on Levit and Mozart. And now I will scribble some more.
In the course of his Twitter recitals, Levit played some Bach-Busoni, and some Busoni—and some Bach-influenced Busoni. (More on this in a moment.) Ferruccio Busoni was the Italian pianist, composer, intellectual, and visionary who lived from 1866 to 1924 (almost the exact same lifespan as Satie). Years ago, interviewing Ferruccio Furlanetto, the basso, I said, “Are you the greatest Ferruccio since Busoni?” He smiled and allowed that it might be so.
For his part, Levit called Busoni “one of my great heroes and idols,” before sitting down to play him.
Levit played two Bach transcriptions, probably the most famous that Busoni devised. Two chorale preludes, in G minor and F minor. The G-minor is BWV 659, “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland”; the F-minor is BWV 639, “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ.”
In the G-minor, Levit played with a rich sound. And a steady pulse: absolutely steady. He did not warp this piece with rubato, instead letting it have its inexorability. Rubato can kill this piece. Furthermore, the pianist let the music speak for itself. (This is related to tempo and rhythm, of course.) Frankly, I forgot Levit, in his hoodie. I was simply communing with Bach, and beyond.
The G-major ending was a warm benediction.
And the F-minor, BWV 639? Its tempo was surprisingly slow. But, unsurprisingly, it was steady. That was critical. As for the melody, it was plump and a little “vertical” for me: a little plunked. But this was well within pianistic style, and—here is the important thing—all the weights matched: every note, in its weight, matched every other. Nothing was out of balance.
In 1909, Ferruccio Busoni wrote Berceuse, in memory of his mother, Anna. That is remarkable, isn’t it? To write a berceuse, a lullaby, in honor of one’s mother. Busoni composed his lullaby for piano, then made an orchestral version, calling it Berceuse élégiaque. Mahler premiered this version in New York.
Levit, of course, played the original, with his accustomed acuteness and affinity.
Also in 1909, Busoni wrote Fantasia nach Johann Sebastian Bach—“Fantasy after . . .”—in memory of his father, Ferdinando. (When I said, above, that Busoni wrote something “Bach-influenced,” this is what I meant.) Levit likes this fantasy, as he does Busoni in general, as he does music in general. He played it in a New York recital in October 2018. Allow me to quote from my review:
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.
Later in that review, I wrote, “There is a cliché: ‘to find the truth of the music.’ This is what Levit does.” Yes, that is true.