Igor Levit’s Virtuosity Serves Cardew and Rzewski Compellingly


United KingdomUnited Kingdom Cardew and Rzewski: Igor Levit (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 20.7.2015 (MB)

CardewThälmann Variations
RzewskiDreams: Part Two
 The People United will Never be Defeated!


Cornelius Cardew: now perhaps most celebrated, notorious even, for the Scratch Orchestra, his polemical Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, and the still unexplained circumstances of his death at the hands of a hit-and-run driver. We do not have so many opportunities to hear his music. The previous occasion I had, I am afraid I emerged nonplussed. Much depends, I suspect, upon which music. Whilst I struggle to find Cardew’s Thälmann Variations a masterpiece – and was that what he was trying to accomplish in any case – I found it a far more interesting work than the pieces I had heard in 2011. The Variations were written in 1974 to remember Ernst Thälmann, the Communist leader imprisoned and murdered by the Nazis; they incorporate Hanns Eisler’s Heimliche Aufmarsch and the protest song set by Charles Koechlin, Libérons Thaelmann!

The present performance from Igor Levit left none who heard it in any doubt that the work was receiving as convincing advocacy as it could ever hope for.  What, then, of the music,? The theme is odd, sounding more like Auld Lang Syne as it progresses, yet starting with a slightly unfortunate post hoc hint of the Dynasty theme tune. (Confessions of a strangely misspent youth!) Levit played it as beautifully as he would have done Liszt, and indeed the harmonies sound a little like a strange mix of earlyish, straightforward Liszt and early-twentieth-century English music. Moreover, the first variation calls for a technique not so far removed from the Lisztian, which Levit possesses in spades, before Auld Lang Syne comes closer in its successor. The seriousness with which Levit approached and accomplished his task was admirable. Connections with other music, whether through the score itself or the beauty and warmth of his touch, manifested themselves throughout: Debussyan open fifths and Liszt again in the slow section, which might almost have been the core of a nineteenth-century sonata. (How I should love to hear Levit in the B minor Sonata, or the Dante!) If it were there that I thought, reactionary bourgeois, empire-serving modernist that I am, that the Variations veered dangerously close to sentimentality, that was certainly not true of the performance. I cannot say that I found the closing march ‘a complex “march of events” ’ (Cardew), but that doubtless depends on what one understands by ‘complex’; it was certainly not without incident. This emerged as the most interesting Cardew piece and performance I have heard.

Frederic Rzewski’s 2014 second part of Dreams, after Akiro Kurosawa’s film, received its British premiere, Levit having given the first performance three months earlier in Heidelberg. It is a co-commission by Heidelberger Frühling, Carnegie Hall, and the Wigmore Hall, with the support of André Hoffmann. The first movement, ‘Bells’, I am afraid I found over-extended, but again, I am as sure as I can be that that was not to be attributed to Levit’s performance. Performance, perhaps more than the music ‘itself’, brought Debussy again to mind; this was tintinnabulation more compelling, at least, than the ‘holy minimalist’ – may God preserve our souls! – variety. There were intriguing Schoenbergian harmonies to be heard too, and, if I am not being unduly fanciful, also renewed Lisztian associations, suggesting that a performer’s touch (almost) alone can create such resonances. (I am reminded of Sir Donald Tovey’s remark that Liszt’s piano music told us that here was a pianist who could not help but draw a beautiful sound from the instrument.) ‘Fireflies’ (no.6 out of 8) is, as one might expect, vividly pictorial, Levit superseding what sounded like formidable technical challenges. ‘Ruins’, for me the most interesting of the four movements heard, announces a theme as if for variations of some sort – thoughtful programming, as one might expect – but which is immediately developed contrapuntally. As Paul Griffiths noted in the programme, this ‘could be the bass for a chaconne, but one broken or unfinished’. It guides progress, at times almost Bach-like, then seems, if this makes any sense, to desist from doing so for a while. The performer’s task in such music is often to import at least some sense of continuity to (apparent or otherwise) discontinuity; Levit certainly did. Just as he navigated tremolando touch, voicing, harmonic motion, and so on, surely pointing up knowingly the likenesses to Liszt’s Bach – and not just BACH – variations. The movement even occasionally sounded neo-Lisztian in form at some times. Apart, that is, from an intervention by mobile telephone. The fourth movement, ‘Wake Up’, states simple early material, apparently from a melody by the singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie, and then progresses toccata-like. An initial comparison I made mentally to the finale of Prokofiev’s Seventh Piano Sonata failed, when a less single-minded – or, to put it another way, more varied – trajectory emerged. Perhaps this is the broken landscape of post-modernity. Was that a BACH reference I heard, or perhaps a little later, a DSCH one? I am really not sure; my ears might have been playing tricks. Perhaps that is part of the point.

After a highly impressive first half, Levit truly surpassed himself in an all-encompassing performance of Rzewski’s classic The People United will Never be Defeated, which, as many readers will know, takes its theme from Sergio Ortega’s  ¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido!, initially intended as an anthem for Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity  coalition, gaining further revolutionary currency as a symbol of resistance both within Chile and without, following the overthrow and murder of Allende. That theme here sounded forthright, catchy, even slinky: just the inspiring thing. The Webern-like treatment of the first variation had us believing in every note (just as a great performance of Webern will, despite his rather more sparing manner!), whilst its successor seemed somehow to fill in some of the gaps left by such pointillism. It was the extraordinary, human variety of treatments, both in work and performance, that most of all struck – just as it surely should. This stands, one might say and despite the difference in form and genre, closer to Mahler’s conception of the symphony than to Sibelius’s. And so, in the third variation, ‘Slightly slower, with expressive nuances,’ an experience not so far removed from shellshock in the face of repression could be felt.

Voicing, again, was cared for as if Levit were playing Chopin – and it was interesting to hear how much the music could be made to sound like Chopin’s, or indeed Rachmaninov’s. (At one stage, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini came to my mind.) ‘Care’ should not here be taken to imply something pedantic; rather, it was exercised within a dynamic, goal-oriented framework of impetus and integration, bringing us closer than we might expect to the work’s original companion piece, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. Repeated notes – the twenty-third variation, I think – sounded worthy of Gaspard de la nuit. As for the ‘big twenty-eighth variation … an essay in boogie-woogie minimalism’ (Griffiths), well quite: it still seemed to me as banal as the real, minimalistic thing. But the revolution is supposed to be for everyone, I reminded myself, slightly grudgingly. The improvisation following the final variation started with a welcome hint of extended Webern and went on its own path compellingly – though my memory does not permit me to retrace it now. (Is that not perhaps part of the point of an improvisation anyway?) And yes, at the end, the tune did emerge having ‘manifested a resilience it was designed to express and encourage’ (Griffiths), intriguingly not unlike the return of the ‘Aria’ in the Goldberg Variations (a work I hear Levit is due soon to record). This was virtuosity in the very best sense, indeed the Lisztian sense: at a musical and technical level that would defeat any ‘mere’ virtuoso.

Meanwhile, well: look at the neo-liberal world in which we live, the neo-liberal progeny of Pinochet’s chums – step forward, Milton Friedman! – apparently triumphant, a Labour Party under Harriet Harman supporting Conservative attacks upon the poor which even the Liberal Democrats opposed. That was not the least of the reasons why I found this performance so moving; it gave a glimmer of hope, experientially, that the heirs of Allende rather than those of Pinochet might yet reunite, might yet even win.

Mark Berry

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