‘In a class of his own’: some notes on pianist Igor Levit

London, as any fule kno, is a great city for live music; spoilt for choice almost every night, you could spend a fortune, if you had such a thing. (I don’t, by the way.) But if you choose carefully and avoid the big, expensive gigs, you can pack in a fair bit. It’s all about quality. For me last week was a real treat: first up was Ryan Wigglesworth’s new opera ‘A Winter’s Tale’ at the ENO, then I attended two concerts on consecutive evenings featuring the extraordinary pianist Igor Levit (portrait above taken by Robbie Lawrence). The first, at the Barbican, included a performance of Beethoven’s fabulous Fifth or  ‘Emperor’ Concerto, with Fabio Luisi conducting the London Symphony Orchestra; the second was a solo recital at the Wigmore Hall, the latest instalment in Levit’s complete cycle of Beethoven Sonatas.

I first caught Levit live just two or three years ago – again at the Wigmore, performing Frederic Rzewski’s monumental variations piece ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated!’ –   though I had already bought and been enormously impressed by the pianist’s CD of Bach’s Partitas after hearing excerpts played on Radio 3. That first concert experience was a revelation, and – as my Twitter followers may have realised from repeated rave comments – I’ve tried to catch him playing whenever he’s done a London gig. I’m no pianist, but even to me it was immediately evident that Levit was a truly great musician; and I soon discovered that many leading critics – the Observer’s Fiona Maddocks, for example, and the Telegraph‘s Ivan Hewett, whose assessment of Levit provided the title for this piece – had been lauding him as an major talent.

It’s not just that Levit is possessed of formidable technique (not to mention formidable recall – he regularly plays from memory); more importantly, he really seems to get inside the music. Head bowed closely over the keyboard, he produces music that is at once hugely lucid, intelligent and deeply felt. This week’s two concerts – albeit all Beethoven – saw him navigating a wondrous array of moods, tempi and tones, from the thunderously powerful to the sublimely delicate, from the triumphantly optimistic to the achingly poignant. Small wonder the audiences at both venues responded so enthusiastically; each performance was utterly magnificent. Oh, yes, there’s something I forgot to mention; unless I am mistaken, he reached the age of 30 only this week.

I’m not going to go into lots of biographical detail here. Suffice to say Levit – whose family moved from Russia to Germany when he was eight – began playing the piano at three, has won competitions and awards galore, and has to date released three quite remarkable CDs on Sony. First, in 2014, came a double CD of Beethoven’s last five piano sonatas, which won a trio of prizes; next, the aforementioned recital of Bach’s Partitas; and then – am almost amazing feat – a triple CD combining Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, and Rjewski’s ‘The People United…’  – which deservedly won Gramophone magazine’s award for Instrumental CD of 2016. You can understand why I’m looking forward to his next release, whatever it might turn out to be.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be telling you how good Levit is; after all, if you live in or near London, I may be making it harder for myself to get a ticket to one of his concerts. But I’ll take that risk; I’ve always taken pleasure in passing on enthusiasms, be they musical, cinematic, literary, oenophile or whatever. So you can set about finding some evidence of Levit’s particular talent through the links above, or of course, better still,  you can spoil yourself and buy one or all of the Sony CDs.

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Igor Levit at the end of his performance of the ‘Emperor’ Concerto at the Barbican (photo by Geoff Andrew)

You can find out more about Igor Levit on his website at http://igor-levit.de/?lang=en. The photo at the top of this piece is from the website, courtesy Robbie Lawrence.

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