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Levitating Igor Levit

by Tim Pfaff

Pianist Igor Levit. Photo: Sony Classical
Pianist Igor Levit. Photo: Sony Classical  

What have we before us in the form of pianist Igor Levit? Who is this guy? His playing is in every way the equal of any of his contemporaries, set apart from them mainly by an unnamable quality that would rightly be called transcendence, had not Daniil Trifonov's publicists claimed the title. His music-making seems fetched from the beyond and headed back for it, or to it.

Count on his performing some of the repertory on his new CD, "Igor Levit, Life" (Sony) — complex, rarely performed music a concertgoer would do well to get under the belt pre-performance — at his Herbst Theatre recital for San Francisco Performances on November 1. But don't assume it will sound the same.

Levit is unquestionably the most intellectual of today's pianists, and also one of the most feeling, achieving the personal by plunging headlong into the transpersonal. It's now de rigueur for CDs of mixed repertory to be given poetic, evocative titles. "Igor Levit, Life" perches provocatively above playing of both lofty conception and naked emotion, leaving one wondering whether the pianist is in part winking at the present-day convention.

His program wears, loosely, the mantle of transcription. It opens with Ferruccio Busoni's "Fantasia after J.S. Bach," a work that, unlike Busoni's more explicit re-workings of particular Bach works, is what Indian musicians might call a garland of Bach chorales, composed in memory to the composer's parents, who died in close succession.


Pianist Igor Levit. Photo: Sony Classical  

There's a haunting Busoni "Berceuse" near the end of the disc, hinting at the originality of all transcription per the composer's dictum: "Every notation is, in itself, the transcription of an abstract idea. The instant the pen seizes it, the idea loses its original form." So, we find with Levit, does every transformation of the idea into sound, however evanescent, in time.

Should you wonder how far this business of transcription can go, consider the CD's central work. It's Busoni's piano arrangement of Franz Liszt's monumental, half-hour, three-movement fantasy and fugue for organ based on an original chorale by Giacomo Meyerbeer, who installed it in his epochal opera, "Le Prophete." The "fake" chorale becomes a lit fuse that ignites an aurora of kaleidoscopic sound encasing a coiled, rapt Adagio.

Levit considers Busoni's distillation of Liszt an improvement, with "transcendental pianism." The accompanying notes say that Levit is one of the few pianists willing to play the phenomenally challenging work for a live audience. I'll lay odds on his unfurling it at the Herbst.

His playing dissolves virtuosity in a cauldron of musical argument alchemically coupled with emotional revelation. He is incapable of playing an unconsidered note, but his acuity of perception is balanced with both a grandeur of conception and a nearly extreme refinement of feeling.

He surrenders his personal suspicion of the music of Wagner by giving us two of the composer's most exalted compositions in Liszt's knowing "paraphrases." "The Solemn March to the Holy Grail," from "Parsifal," charts the path of transcendence itself, and, despite the orthographic oddities of "Isoldens Liebestod," here we have Wagner's original: Isolde's transfiguration.

Levit's program reflects his reckoning with the death of one of his dearest friends in an accident. (His poem to Hannes is included.) This real-life friend here becomes as archetypal as the one lamented in "Der Abschied" in Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde." Recapitulating that idea, Levit plays the recorded premiere of "A Mensch," by Frederic Rzewski, part of a composition called "Dreams" that Rzewski composed for Levit, both sharing their experience of personal loss reclaimed.

The purest example of transcription is Brahms' famous recasting of the Chaconne from Bach's Second Solo-Violin Partita for piano left hand, which Levit plays in one long, illuminating arc. The impurest, if most involving, is Brahms' "edition" of the fragments from his friend Robert Schumann's "Ghost Variations," his final composition for the instrument before self-commitment to the asylum. Levit investigates it with a reverential hush.

Even at its most exclamatory, this CD never roars. Beneath its unflagging intensity is an engine of elemental, uncorrupted energy. Its two hours of music overtake you from the start and promptly dispense with Earth-time.

Levit the iconoclast ends with "Peace Piece," a transcription of an improvisation by jazz great Bill Evans that emerged fully formed during a recording session for "Everybody Digs Bill Evans." The piece is stillness itself, and Levit makes you lean into it, so that you and he can levitate in it together.

As I was proofreading this review, pianist Alexandre Tharaud tweeted onto my timeline a quote from Arthur Schnabel, a pianist of whom Levit could be a reincarnation: "The downside of the piano is that each good note is located between two bad ones." Levit counters, in Thelonious Monk's words, that there are no bad notes on the piano.


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