United Kingdom Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev: Igor Levit (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, James Feddeck (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 25.4.2013 (SRT)
Stravinsky: Circus Polka
Divertimento from The Fairy’s Kiss
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 1 “Classical”
It’s rarely that you can say a performer made you hear a work with completely fresh ears, but Igor Levit’s Scottish debut had that impact on me, for the simple reason that he brought to Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto a sense of subtlety and depth that, frankly, you just don’t associate with that work. The very first bars were a declaration of intent: after those horn phrases the piano didn’t hit the accompanying chords so much as stroke them gently, and the string theme didn’t ring out as it normally does, but sounded understated, gentle, even tender. That’s not what you expect from this war horse! That refusal to accept the norm, the determination to challenge, characterised every aspect of Levit’s performance. His cadenza, for example, was full of cheeky pauses and diminuendos, forcing us to hear this most familiar music with new ears, and he kept us waiting for an impish amount of time before he decided to launch the Scherzando section of the middle movement.
His playing as a whole is clean and unfussy but technically brilliant, without ever being in the least ostentatious. Sometimes he sat bolt upright at the piano stool, sometimes he stooped so close to the keyboard almost as if to listen to what the keys were telling him. The orchestra responded in kind, with an unusual degree of light and shade and some marvellous solo moments that underlined the overall feeling of sensitivity and expressiveness. Not everything in this approach was gain: I wished he would turn up the volume at the end of the slow movement, and he began the rondo too quietly and too slowly (though James Feddeck eventually got the orchestra more effectively into a con fuoco rhythm). Furthermore, his oddly static encore was rather poorly chosen. On the whole, though, this was a tremendously exciting debut that recast this work in new terms which clearly rubbed off on his collaborators.
Compared with that, nearly anything would sound commonplace, and Prokofiev’s Classical symphony was solid if unexceptional, except for a very warm Larghetto and some winning rubato in the Gavotte. The Fairy’s Kiss was beautifully played, though, with some exceptional solos from the clarinet, cello and flute, and some fantastic wind and brass playing to give colour to the unfolding story. James Feddeck, a late stand-in, helped to weave Stravinsky’s feather-light texture together in a way that just managed to avoid sounding episodic. The raucous, off-kilter fun of the Circus Polka was, in many ways, its polar opposite: where that was all about boisterous display and untamed rhythm, The Fairy’s Kiss came across as a delicate homage, full of subtlety and flecks of marvellous instrumental colour.