The Russian-born, German-schooled Igor Levit has had glowing reviews for his Sony recordings of Beethoven Sonatas and Bach Partitas (links below), and this triple bill of Variations by Bach, Beethoven and Frederic Rzewski maintains his formidably high standards of performance.
It’s clear from the start that he has given a great amount of thought to the Diabelli Variations, but he also captures the work’s volatility and honours Beethoven’s prodigious level of inventiveness in such a way that each hearing yields new things. I was hooked from the moment when Levit, rather slyly, presents the first variant almost as an optional theme, and the unfolding breadth and assurance of his interpretation really connects with the listener. He is completely in tune with Beethoven’s genius for expanding the possibilities of Diabelli’s waltz while subtly flagging up the set’s humble origin. It’s an extraordinary act of anticipation, exploration and reflection, one that links immediately with the work’s accumulative spirituality. Levit’s entry into the transformation that is the final ‘Tempo di menuetto’ is a miracle of inevitability, of having covered a huge distance, and of clear-sighted judgement. His overview of mood and structure is peerless, as is his technical accomplishment, virtuosity all the more thrilling for not drawing attention to itself. Even after several auditions, Levit’s vision and unobtrusive faithfulness to Beethoven’s score continue to astonish.
Compared say with Glenn Gould, Levit’s account of J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations might sound cool and measured. The more you listen to it, though, the more you marvel at the way Levit sustains its progress through the various states of, mainly, joy. The omnipresent harmonic outline of each number ebbs and flows with great subtlety, the repeats yield all manner of satisfying ornamentation and changes of emphasis, and, when required, his skill has enormous panache. The famous G-minor Variation (XXV, the so-called ‘Black Pearl’), though magnificently expressive, is not so overwrought that it sounds mannered. The piano sound is cultivated and full of character, and Levit’s approach is both stylish and stylistically aware without being slavishly ‘period’.
Both the Bach and the Beethoven sets are a powerful presence in The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (1976), 36 Variations by American composer Frederic Rzewski (born 1938) on the song ‘El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!’ by Sergio Ortega and which became a hymn of left-wing resistance during Chile’s Allende years. It’s a rugged, muscular tune, which delivers a torrent of invention embracing techniques and styles from Bach, through Liszt to the piano giants of the twentieth century, along with noises-off including bangs, yells and, anticipating The X Files music, eerie whistling. There is also a strong jazz influence that seeps through the remote, visionary sections, and overall Rzewski’s transformation of a theme as potentially banal as Diabelli’s reveals a consistently high level of inspiration. There are recordings of the work by the composer himself and by Marc-André Hamelin; the sound quality on Levit’s, though, has terrific presence, his playing has incredible bravura, and his final part (left to the performer to improvise) is a remarkable combination of extended cadenza and farewell that defines the work’s colossal range.
All three discs are distinguished by Levit’s exceptional flair, energy, intelligence and identification with the music, and I wouldn’t be without them.