A typically thoughtful programme, brilliantly performed, from Igor Levit

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Brahms, Hersch, Wagner and Liszt: Igor Levit (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 25.9.2022. (MB)

Igor Levit (c) Robbie Lawrence

Brahms, arr. Busoni – Chorale Preludes, BV B 50
Fred Hersch – Variations on a Folk Song
Wagner, arr. Kocsis – Tristan und Isolde, Prelude to Act I
Liszt – Piano Sonata in B minor, S.178

A typically thoughtful programme, brilliantly performed, from Igor Levit: the second half reprising that of his Salzburg recital in August (review click here), the first quite different, yet forming an equally coherent whole. First, we heard the six of Brahms’s eleven late organ chorale preludes Busoni arranged for piano in 1902. The first, ‘Herzlich tut mich erfreuen’, rightly announced itself paradoxically, or better dialectically, both emphatically as piano music and yet also as ‘letting the music speak for itself’, in that most necessary of clichés. Musical processes behind and beneath the melody revealed two — sorry, three — great minds at work. Brahms’s arpeggiated half-lights emerged, as if from his own piano music; they were never imposed. That attentiveness to material — a sort of dual authenticity, though not in the debased sense the later twentieth century made all too current — marked out ‘Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele’ as more yielding, yet similarly straightforward, and the ineffably lovely ‘Es ist ein Ros entsprungen’ as differently inward, Levit relishing Busoni’s modest interventions. The two preludes on ‘Herzlich tut mich verlangen’ were properly contrasted, the first speaking with a richness of tone apt for a more overtly Romantic outpouring (from both Brahms and Busoni), the second acting with ‘Es ist ein Ros entsprungen’ both to encase that passion and coming closest to the Passions of Bach. It was deeply moving in its modesty, patience, and depth. Levit took his time, rather beautifully, with the heartbreaking ‘O Welt, ich muß dich lassen’. His dignified performance spoke with a distilled wisdom, like Brahms’s, that seemed to say all that need, perhaps all that could, be said.

Fred Hersch’s 2021 Variations on a Folk Song followed. An initial statement of a time-honoured theme, here ‘Oh Shenandoah’, provided a connection rather than kinship with Brahms, but enough to have one think. Twenty variations followed. Harmonic recolouring came first to the fore, followed in what I think may have been the third variation by a change of mood to something less ruminative, more extrovert. A wide variety of treatments ensued, one (mostly) for the left hand standing out in dark, muscular fashion, as an heir to Romantic tradition, another insistent and ardent, perhaps a little after Liszt (to come). Others were more inward or floating. This was evidently music Levit had internalised, just as it this clearly represented a tribute from one pianist to another pianist — and vice versa. The principal language may have been forged in the jazz world, but it was generous in its frame of reference — and that generosity extended to spirit too.

Zoltán Kocsis’s transcription of the Prelude to Act I of Tristan was strenuous, big-boned, virtuosic, the emphasis placed very much on struggle, on becoming. Always directed to a goal that was never reached, its oppressive lack of resolution (in more than one sense) led us directly into a performance of Liszt’s B minor Sonata perhaps still more fiery, still more coherent than that I had admired a month earlier in Salzburg. It was similarly bold and questing, and of course more unremittingly virtuosic, virtuosity and rhetoric always means to an end rather than ends in themselves. Post-Beethovenian goal-direction was equally apparent, through rather than despite flexibility. Bringing us to the recapitulation, for instance, Levit triumphantly banished the false dawn of the preceding fugato to the fiery furnace. Form was a living, breathing, even diabolical thing. Liszt here was, quite rightly, both highly integrated and far-flung, Liszt’s essence grasped and communicated.

Detail mattered too: the return of those strange descending scales told us beyond any doubt that, were a single note in them to be changed, so too would the rest of the work. Never, not for one moment, could one doubt our guide knew where he was leading us. For Levit’s command of line, which one might well consider ‘Wagnerian’ in terms of unendliche Melodie, was not the least tool in communicating a pianistic sorcery on Liszt’s part that under the right hands is anything but rhapsodic. As for hands, had I not witnessed the performance with my own eyes as well as ears, I might have sworn there were four at work. This is a masterpiece of musical thought, of course, but it is equally piano music, and sounded as such, reminding me of Donald Tovey’s observation that Liszt’s piano music was that of someone who could not fail to make a beautiful sound when touching the keys. Beauty takes many guises, of course, but Liszt never, ever writes against the instrument. Nor, so it seems, does Levit ever play against it. A beatific close seemed, at least in retrospect, to necessitate the lovely yet plain-spoken encore, (as in Salzburg) Schumann’s ‘Der Dichter spricht’.

Mark Berry

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