Igor Levit launched his career in 2005 when, as the youngest competitor in the Arthur Rubinstein Competition in Tel Aviv, he won three prizes: Silver, Best Performer of Chamber Music; Audience Favorite; and Best Performer of Contemporary Music. Since then, he has grown in popularity among German and British audiences, and with debuts like this one Wednesday at Longy-Bard in the Celebrity Series, Levit is certain to expand his New York-originating following in this country. Though the 29-year-old pianist has made a reputation with his interpretation of Beethoven, particularly the late sonatas, which he has recorded for Sony Classical, his recent output has wandered more widely, as he has championed and collaborated with the Massachusetts native Frederic Rzewski and started recording J.S. Bach.
In the concert sponsored by David and Harriet Griesinger, all three of these composers were represented, if not in name, then in spirit. Levit performed Beethoven’s Op. Diabelli Variations, Rzewski’s North American Ballad No. 5, and three selections from Shostakovich’s Op. 87 Preludes and Fugues, a set of 24 pieces in the major and minor keys, modeled after the Well-Tempered Clavier.
Levit initially frustrated. The opening C-sharp-minor prelude seemed to keep Bach prominently in mind as fluid scales exchange between right and left hands. He appeared overzealous with the pedal, smearing the detailed scales. But this unusual choice made sense in the context of the fugue: the extended pedal transformed Shostakovich’s counterpoint into an austere soundscape resonating in an extended sonority that prepares the way for a dramatic and simple end to the fugue. The E-minor prelude, in comparison, is a minimal exchange among three voices (melody in the upper register, plodding bass line, and trancelike middle voice). It is in the fugue that these elements come to life, building to a satisfying climax that dramatically transforms the trudging bass into a recapitulation of the subject. Levit showcased his virtuosity in the final of these three selections: the G-sharp-minor Prelude consists of a passacaglia, with a persistent octave ostinato underscoring measured counterpoint in the upper ranges. He explicated the Fugue, a jagged, chromatic romp, with great aplomb.
Rzewski’s Ballad No. 5 comprises 24 variations on a Texas chain gang song, “It makes a long-time man feel bad.” They are divided into roughly three sections: the first nine fragment the tune into a bricolage of Americana—rag, jazz, and folk all inform the music, reclaimed in Rzewski’s unique tonal language. These lead to a pensive middle set that return to the original melody, augmented by improvisations and written-out cadenzas. Variations 19-24 haltingly return to the song in fragmented tonality. Rzewski’s technically challenging variations sometimes require the performer to beat a rhythm on the piano leg while playing, or to whistle a melody over the keyboard accompaniment; in the concluding variations, a chain is rhythmically picked up and dropped, in imitation of the labor. Needless to say, Rzewski’s Ballad is a stern work carrying a deep political message; less an homage to folk melody, these variations seem to vivisect the tune, fragment it into a demented Americana—at one point we hear snippets of “This land is your land”, before the shuffle of the chains drags the music to its conclusion. Levit blithely negotiated the unremitting demands of the score: his whistling along with the piano seemed casual and ordinary; scraping a chain in time to the music seemed to come naturally, and he remained unfazed even when he accidentally dropped it from the stool placed next to the keyboard (he continued seamlessly, stooping to scrape the chain whenever it was needed for the remainder). Although dramatic where appropriate, Levit’s executed with self-possession and poise. This levelheaded read perhaps dimmed Rzewski’s political message, but it highlighted his artistry.
Returning after intermission to familiar ground for both pianist and audience, we heard the variation commission from Antonio Diabelli expanded by Beethoven into 33, which stand at the pinnacle of the genre. The artist has recently recorded these too for Sony. Altogether at home in Beethoven, Levit is as fun to watch as to hear. He engaged deeply, expressing the unique character and idea behind each variation. HIs occasional slips came mostly in keeping up with Beethoven’s brisk tempo markings, yet slower movements seemed to languish, especially during the repeats. Regardless, the concert felt intimate and intelligently restrained.
Beethoven can frequently be read in extremes: passion and drama highlighted by the full orchestral force of the piano. Yet Levit clearly sees these variations as chamber music, and he fit the variations to that scale, resisting the urge to overwhelm the modestly sized space. Of the many fine moments, none felt as thoughtful as the final variation, hard-won after a labyrinthine Allegro fugue in the penultimate. In this closer, Levit spung out long lyrical lines and tenderly shaped melodies. The evening’s journey through the 33 concluded in quiet triumph.
The program will be repeated for New York audiences on Friday evening in Levit’s Carnegie Hall premiere, where it is certain to be another creature altogether, one more accommodating to a larger space and audience. Likely to be a success, it should be on a different scale from the triumphs of the intelligent, poised pianist who just debuted in Boston.