Igor Levit at Carnegie Hall

Piano Sonata in E, Op.109
Fred Hersch
Variations on a Folksong [World premiere]
Wagner, arr. Zoltán Kocsis
Tristan und Isolde – Prelude
Piano Sonata in B-minor

Igor Levit (piano)

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 13 January, 2022
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

For this, his first appearance in Carnegie Hall’s 2,800-seat Stern Auditorium, Igor Levit offered a wide-ranging yet cohesive program. A Beethoven Piano Sonata ending in a set of variations led into Variations by Fred Hersch, and the Prelude to Tristan was followed by the Piano Sonata by the opera composer’s father-in-law and musical champion, Liszt.

As was the case throughout much of the recital, Levit’s reading of the Beethoven was a study in contrasts, his playing often leaning toward extremes. His intensity produced some exquisite episodes followed by passages where he seemed obsessively concentrating on the notes. Through the fantasy-like opening movement, with its numerous tempo and mood changes, his playing was remarkably gentle and subtle; at other times it seemed rushed and devoid of interpretative nuance. The manic second-movement Prestissimo flew by in an impressive display of pianism but without any distinguishing character. In the Finale, the aria-like opening of the first variation was full of melancholic yearning, but as the movement built up to thefrenetic runs in the final variation, it began to feel like the pianist was reveling more in the power of his instrument than in the message of the music.

Then Fred Hersch’s Variations on a Folksong, an exploration of ‘O Shenandoah’. This twenty-minute work showed a less solid command of longer structures. The melody of the well-known song appears in the first of the twenty variations and then returns at the end. In between, we hear fragments and intimations of the original refrain. As the music continued the pianist seemed to immerse himself more deeply into each brief segment, but with no apparent connection between one modulation and the next, the impression of shapelessness only increased, and the final moments came off as totally arbitrary.  

Following intermission Levit delivered a heavily self-indulgent performance of the Tristan Prelude, extending the opening so excessively and spacing the rolled chords so widely that the piece seemed almost devoid of drama. After a more impassioned climax in the middle section, the music slackened and from shadowy, submerged octaves at the end, Levit moved directly into the Liszt Sonata. His highly disciplined account of the work’s sprawling single-movement structure displayed a remarkable range of color and tonal nuance, and there were stretches of singular loveliness, but his overly deliberate approach to tempos and dynamics left little room for spontaneity, with the results feeling more coolly analytical than warm and fiery. Levit offered an encore: a delicate rendering of Liszt’s transcription of the ‘Liebestod’ from the final moments of Tristan.

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