Igor Levit at Wigmore Hall – Muffat, Shostakovich and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations

Passacaglia in G minor
Piano Sonata No.2 in B minor, Op.61
33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Op.120

Igor Levit (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 5 November, 2015
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Igor LevitPhotograph:  Gregor HohenbergIt was only a year ago that Igor Levit was being billed as an “emerging artist”. Now he is being feted as one of the great musicians of our time, a pianist thoroughly grounded in the Classical style, with an imagination, curiosity and spontaneity that have us hanging on his every nuance, blessed with non-showy thorough technical accomplishment and proving himself to be a resourceful explorer of repertoire. His three big Sony releases have all been good box-office, and his mastery of Bach and late-Beethoven is beyond doubt.

Levit seems to have taken to heart Schoenberg’s belief that ‘variation’ is at the centre of music, and the first half of Wigmore Hall programme prepared us for the stupendous invention of the Diabelli Variations, a work that echoes Baroque practice while releasing a flood of expressive possibilities from future composers.

As Georg Muffat’s G-minor Passacaglia gathered in grandeur and complexity, you wondered if J. S. Bach might have absorbed it into his own C-minor Passacaglia, and Levit’s full-toned performance embraced it with expressive overload. Like other pianists in Baroque repertoire, such as András Schiff or Angela Hewitt, Levit wasn’t shy of exploiting the piano’s colour and range to mannerist extremes, and Muffat’s positively encourages it. Levit’s phrasing sighed and soared, subtle pedalling added bloom to finely turned decorations, and his instinctive control of volume and tempo gave it a character denied by readings I’ve heard of it on the organ.

Variation-form is also crucial to Shostakovich’s Piano Sonata No.2. This wartime work spins distractedly out of the ‘Leningrad’ and Eighth Symphonies, and Levit expressed its veiled, elusive qualities with extraordinary perception. His volatile delicacy at the start of the first movement prepared the ground for its later naked ferocity, and his acute musicality unearthed the slow movement’s intense privacy, its spare texture sounding more like a thought than a deed. The Variations Finale (the longest of the three movements) had no sense of closure, Levit’s eloquence draping the unadorned theme with open-ended expectation.

I was simply astounded by Levit’s command of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. The way he joined Diabelli’s “cobbler’s patch” to the first Variation was a marvellous flash of irony that had the effect of chucking the original theme into the bin; there was a fine awareness of the Variations’ system of memory and anticipation that he expressed with consummate clarity; with a few pauses he signalled the moments where the commentaries become increasingly distant relations rather than children of the Waltz; and the butterfly emergence of the Minuet from Diabelli’s chrysalis in the closing section seemed to honour the spirit of the late Sonatas while moving on to a new horizon. If ever there was a performance that released the work’s profound joy and multi-dimensional possibilities, it was Levit’s. His recording is new on Sony, coupled with the Goldberg Variations and The People United Will Never Be Defeated.

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