A Gold Medal for this Piano Marathon from Igor Levit

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven & Rzewski: Igor Levit (piano), Birmingham Town Hall, 10.5.2016. (GR)

Beethoven: Piano Sonata No 17 in D Minor, Op 31 No 2

Frederic Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated

Ever since pianist Igor Levit catapulted to universal fame in 2013 with his debut disc of the five last Beethoven sonatas, he has been rapturously received by audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. This occasion on May 10th 2016 at Birmingham Town Hall was no exception; standing ovations for this 28-year-old Russian are becoming obligatory and he deservedly got one here. Levit emphasised his mastery of sophistication and technical expertise across the music divide, with a programme from both the classical era and late twentieth century: a Beethoven sonata and an iconic set of variations by the avant-garde Rzewski. This concert was performed ‘in the round’ using the auditorium stalls only, and with unreserved seating. Whilst a degree of additional intimacy was achieved, to my mind the re-arrangement of furniture sacrificed both comfort and sightlines in certain areas.

I like associating pieces of music with nicknames. Although the story behind the tagging of The Tempest onto Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 17 in D Minor Op 31 No 2, now seems apocryphal, it does in many ways for me fit. It also slots quite nicely into the THSH ‘Our Shakespeare’ 400th commemorations. Seated a mere two metres directly behind a pianist for whom such a glowing future has been predicted and for a performance of such a landmark sonata, was an experience I shall not forget in a hurry. Taken as a whole, I was greatly impressed by the architecture Levit gave to the work, an interpretation that underlined his affinity with the composer; he made Beethoven seem both familiar and fresh. The scurrying repetitions of the opening Largo, Allegro movement were played with concentrated passion, his whole body aggressively responding to the pedal marks of the score. The following Adagio was beautifully executed; sensations of suspense and mystery (à la spells of Prospero) had me on the edge of my seat at times. The third and final Allegretto movement recalled the frenzied tempestuous mood of the first, but fluid lyricism prevailed, with arpeggios that were crisp and compelling. A sublime experience!

After an afternoon masterclass, a pre-concert interview and a Beethoven treasure, Igor Levit’s day was just beginning! Over sixty minutes of Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated was yet to come. You cannot help but admire the man’s stamina and surprisingly he did not appear over-exhausted at the close. Is there a longer through-composed piece for piano in the repertoire? Written in 1975 as a tribute to the socialists who protested against the Allende regime in Chile, it is based upon their revolutionary anthem by Sergio Ortega, with a couple of other rallying calls – the Italian Bandiera Rossa and Eisler’s Solidaritätslied – thrown in for good measure. It contains no less that thirty-six variations with espressivo marks to accompany many of them. The initial triple beat statement from Levit was bold and determined, making it easy to imagine how it might become a symbol for an ardent rebel organisation (or indeed by football fans roaring their team on with an impassioned U-ni-ted). This is followed by a full statement of the main theme, intoxicating in the hands of Levit. The variations are in groups of six that are difficult to keep track of, but with an element of reflection to close each set, not impossible. Having studied the piece since he was a teenager, Levit remained faithful to the recommendations of the score, as far as I could tell.

In the first six, Levit’s mix of legato and staccato was quite distinct and given a predominantly baroque flavour. The dissonances increased significantly during Variations 7-12, demonstrating the technical brilliance of Levit. He displayed the full range of pianistic proficiencies required of a late 20th century piece, including the notorious lid-slamming and yelling in No 11. There was a dramatic switch back to sensuous rhythms and luxurious melodies to begin the third set, an all-American mix of the musical, blues and modern jazz; Levit could do a spot in a night club any time. The dextrous fingers of Levit assumed quicksilver proportions in the short, sharp variations that began with No 19. The last in this particular group is notable for its use of notes from both extremities of the keyboard; it sounded as if Levit had a bass drum in his left hand and a xylophone in his right. This seemed to lead naturally into a march, military style, to begin the penultimate group. In Variation 26 Levit’s energy was still rampant and his absorption intense, with inspiring resonances sufficient to galvanise any bunch of freedom fighters (reminding me somewhat of Shostakovich). Variation 27 (I think and one of the few over two minutes) was contemplative and compassionately conveyed by Levit. The phantasmagoria of musical genre continued to the end of this group, striking a chord in me of both Debussy and Stravinsky. The final six further extended the inventive skill of Rzewski on the main theme, Levit exhibiting a titanic dynamic range and a not inconsiderable whistling ability, before the final restatement of the main theme in all its glory. The People United Will Never Be Defeated requires an exceptional player to master its twists and turns – Levit ticked all the boxes.

Geoff Read


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