[flag code=”gb” size=”24″ text=”yes”] Muffat, Shostakovich, Beethoven: Igor Levit (Piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 5.11.2015 (RB)
Georg Muffat: Passacaglia in G Minor
Shostakovich: Piano Sonata No. 2 in B Minor Op 61
Beethoven: 33 Variations in C on a waltz by Diabelli Op 120
Igor Levit has just released a recording of three great variation cycles of the piano repertoire: Bach’s ‘Goldberg’ Variations; Beethoven’s ‘Diabelli’ Variations; and Rzewski’s The People United will never be Defeated. This concert was an opportunity to showcase his performance of the ‘Diabelli’ Variations and to introduce us to two lesser-known jewels of the repertoire.
Muffat’s Passacaglia – also a set of variations – was written in 1690 as part of a volume of keyboard music entitled Apparatus Musico-Organisticus. It is more familiar to us as an organ or harpsichord piece (Muffat himself was a very fine organist) but Levit made a very convincing case for playing it on the piano. He deployed a silky legato touch in the opening section and his phrasing was expressive and elastic. As in Couperin’s music, there are numerous ornaments scattered throughout the piece and Levit was alive to period conventions whilst integrating them seamlessly into the musical narrative. As the variations progressed, Levit made the most of the expressive chromaticisms and he seemed to find just the right balance between pianistic brilliance and depth of expression.
From Muffat we moved to Shostakovich’s Second Piano Sonata which was written in 1943 when the composer was having to cope with the privations caused by the Second World War and was on edge at having to move his family from Leningrad to Moscow. Like the Hindemith piano sonatas which were written a decade earlier, Shostakovich’s Second Sonata is an unjustly neglected piece and it remains a mystery to me why pianists do not programme it more often in recitals. The opening of the Allegretto had a quiet, glistening, distant quality that was highly effective – this was almost music coming from another world. Levit played the rippling semiquavers cleanly while at the same time producing some gorgeous tone colours and imaginative impressionistic sonorities. The sardonic march had the necessary bite while some of the punched discords were abrasive without being ugly. Levit sustained the line excellently in the elegiac Largo second movement and he was not afraid to play very softly. There were subtle shifts in touch and timbre as the music progressed and we became increasingly drawn into the composer’s bleak interior world. The last movement is also a set of variations and once again Levit brought a burnished tonal beauty to the haunting theme which runs through the movement. The various transformations of the theme were brilliantly handled and the variations superbly characterised as we moved from expressive counterpoint, to grandiose dotted rhythms, manic chattering and dreamy lullabies. I have always particularly admired Gilels’ interpretation of this work but I think I preferred Levit’s performance – it was exceptionally fine playing.
I wondered if Levit would be able to sustain this level of concentration and musicianship in the second half and I am pleased to say that he did not disappoint. Beethoven’s ‘Diabelli’ Variations is of course one of the pinnacles of the piano repertoire and there have been some exceptional performances. With this performance, Levit showed us that he in the same league as the greatest interpreters of the work. The humour and elements of mischief were handled with relish particularly in the pompous second, skittish ninth and wacky thirteenth variations. We could hear Beethoven sending up Mozart’s Leporello in variation 22 and thumbing his nose at Cranmer’s piano studies in variation 23. Levit has a big technique and he could produce the pianistic fireworks when required – for example in the elfin textures of variation 10 and the dazzling finger-work of variations 23 and 27. Beethoven’s enormous breadth of humanity permeated the work and we could hear the tenderness in variation 3, the nobility and generosity of spirit in variation 14 and the towering intellect in the contrapuntal variation 24. There was a firm sense of structure and purpose throughout with Levit keeping a firm eye on tempo and motivic relationships. The shift to C Minor was beautifully handled and in the ornate variation 31 Levit offered ravishing beauty of tone and a glimpse of the sublime. The final minuet was graceful, luminous and had a profound sense of nostalgia – a soulful reflection on this most extraordinary of musical journeys.
This was quite simply an evening of awe-inspiring piano playing. As one would expect the audience responded by giving Levit a standing ovation.