A thrillingly ambitious recital by Igor Levit in Berlin

GermanyGermany Muffat, Rzewski, Kerll, and Busoni: Igor Levit (piano), Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin, 11.1.2020. (MB)

Igor Levit at Pierre Boulez Saal © Peter Adamik

Muffat – Apparatus musico-organisticus: Passacaglia in G minor
Rzewski – Dreams II
Kerll – Passacaglia in D minor
Busoni – Fantasia contrappuntistica

I have heard a good number of ambitious musical performances, ambitions fully realised, from Igor Levit, ranging from his Wigmore Hall Beethoven sonata cycle to a landmark modern performance of Henze’s Tristan in Salzburg. None of those, however, would outstrip the ambition, again fully realised, of this, his Pierre Boulez Saal debut recital, culminating in Busoni’s Fantasia contrappuntistica, a work which, he owns, is a ‘borderline piece’, which ‘takes me to the limits of my abilities – mentally, intellectually, physically’. Those limits, if limits they were, were thrilling to explore.

Two seventeenth-century passacaglias, from Georg Muffat and Johann Caspar Kerll, rarely if ever heard on the modern or indeed any other form of piano, proved not the least of the recital’s achievements. Georg Muffat’s G minor piece, from his 1690 Apparatus musico-organisticus, revealed kinship with music from contemporary clavecinistes, early keyboard composers (Frescobaldi came to mind more than once), and later composers from Bach to Brahms, and perhaps even beyond to Busoni. Delicate, responsive, variegated in a developmental sense, Levit’s performance had one feel as well as observe the composer’s balance between detail and longer line: not so different, after all, from Beethoven. Harmony was relished; harmonic motion was meaningfully conveyed. So too were the surprises Muffat sprang for us: no underlining, ‘just’ musical understanding and communication. It had all the inevitability of Hegel’s owl of Minerva taking flight, yet none of that old bird’s baggage. Levit’s performance of Kerll’s piece had all the virtues of his Muffat and likewise all of its particularity. Voice-leading, quite without narcissism, was nonetheless to die for. Its directed freedom created form before our ears. We travelled from intimacy to exultancy, the latter never failing to nurture continuation of the former from within.

In between came Frederic Rzewski’s 2014 Dreams II, written for Levit (and previously heard by me at the Wigmore Hall in 2015). Its four movements did, whether as work or performance, what they said in their titles – ‘Bells’, ‘Fireflies’, ‘Ruins’, ‘Wake up’ – without conforming to mere expectation, without questioning as well as fulfilling. Indeed, questioning seemed to be very much part and parcel of their fulfilment. The first movement seemed to relate both to Debussy and to Webern, but that was never the point, not even the starting point, in a performance of calibrated drama. Increasingly seductive warmth proved anything but antithetical to crystalline clarity. Febrile and flickering, the second movement burned with mercurial heat. The pianist’s riveting virtuosity once again spoke from apparently Debussyan roots, yet who speaks or thinks of roots in relation to fireflies? Rzewski’s ‘Ruins’ seemed known – ruins tend to be – yet the more one listened, the more one realised one had not known them at all. Again, ruins tend to be like that. Their (re)discovery was a wayward process that built on the previous two movements, yet was very much its own thing. The final movement was shaped, dramatised as keenly as Beethoven – or Muffat. Somehow, it seemed already to be hinting at Busoni, not least in its dynamic form and its toccata-like qualities. In its improvisatory reminiscence-cum-creation of whimsical childhood memories it spoke too of dreams, of their magic, of their power.

Like Doktor Faust, Busoni’s fantasia has the quality of a summa, even a summa theologica. Levit’s ‘Preludio corale’ seemed already to encompass the entirety of his instrument in considerably more than mere compass. Questing, like Faust, like Busoni, to bring order out of chaos, the process was never complete, yet no less real like that. Good German (convert) that he was, Busoni believed in werden rather than sein. Beethoven and Liszt flashed by, the pianist-composer’s battle with Bach but one of the dramas, the theologies at stake here. With lightly-worn – insofar as possible! – virtuosity and veiled clarity, Levit proved a sure guide, though whether to the inferno or to paradise was rightly never clear. Busoni’s Sonatina seconda from two years later (1912) hung in the air, suspended, yet somehow also flayed alive. The fugal path was soon upon us, the first of Busoni’s four a further, developmental prelude in miniature (not-so-very miniature). Transition was, it seemed, everything; so too was that journey to the limits of which the pianist had spoken in the programme. Alternative paths to a twentieth century that never quite was, Schoenberg be damned, opened up before us in the Intermezzo and Variations. This, it seemed, was veritable necromancy, but whose? What was the cadenza, and what was the following fugue? The answer was, on one level, perfectly clear; yet it seemed to miss the point entirely. Transition, again, was all. Neo-Lisztian peroration pointed more to the impossibility of completion than Bach could ever have done. If a ‘point’ there were, perhaps it was that. Or perhaps it was the melting encore, the Bach-Busoni Chorale Prelude, ‘Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland’. Mephistopheles does not always have the last word.

Mark Berry

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