Update on Igor Levit: a star takes on Shostakovich and Stevenson

Back in March 2017, I posted a piece in praise of the pianist Igor Levit. By then he had already garnered considerable acclaim in the classical music world, but since that time he has become remarkably well known… without, it must be stressed, having compromised his artistic integrity in any way. The daily filmed-at-home online performances he tweeted during lockdown were exceptionally popular – he now has well over 150,000 followers on Twitter – and his activism in the political arena also proved newsworthy. Levit’s readiness to take on musical marathons – already evident in his performances of great theme-and variation pieces by Bach, Beethoven and his friend Frederic Rzewski – was further confirmed when he played (again filmed online) Erik Satie’s Vexations, where for more than 11 hours he picked out the piece’s single melody 840 times. (The 840 sheets of the score he used were auctioned to raise money for musicians deprived of work by the pandemic.) In short, Levit has become something of a star.

Since I wrote in 2017, Levit has released several more albums, the first two being double CDs: ‘Life’, a collection of pieces inspired by the death of a close friend, and ‘Encounter’, transcriptions of Bach, Brahms and Reger, with Morton Feldman’s Palais de Mari added for good measure. The latest, released last week, is for me the finest, drawing as it does not only on Levit’s technical virtuosity but also on his audacity and his ability to navigate large-scale pieces with both a sure sense of detail and a fine sense of the overall musical architecture. ‘On DSCH’ is a triple CD; the first two discs are devoted to Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, the third to a far less well known work, the monumental Passacaglia on DSCH, written in 1963 by the Scottish composer Ronald Stevenson (1928-2015). I hadn’t even heard (of) the piece until I saw Levit perform it at London’s Wigmore Hall in May 2019 (see picture at top); lasting an hour and a quarter or more, and basically consisting of countless variations on Shostakovich’s much-used musical signature (D, E flat, C, B), the piece is both a heartfelt tribute from one composer to another and an exhilaratingly inventive, kaleidoscopic work that reflects both Stevenson’s musical personality and his political concerns: a lifelong socialist and pacifist, he included among the 21 sections of the continuous piece tributes not only to Bach, Chopin and traditional Scottish folk music but to ‘emergent Africa’ and the six million who died in the Holocaust. It’s a magnificent work; one can only imagine that its relative obscurity is due to its duration – it is among the longest continuous pieces of piano music ever composed – and to the virtuosity and stamina required of anyone brave enough to play it.

Levit, of course, has both, and does the piece proud. He is also, as those who caught him at London’s Barbican Hall in January of last year will know (see picture above), a terrific interpreter of the wonderful Shostakovich cycle, which was inspired by Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier and is undoubtedly one of the pinnacles of twentieth century music for the piano. Obviously you don’t have to listen to the entire set – which lasts around two and a half hours – in one sitting, though to do so makes for a deeply satisfying journey. Whatever, despite its (for me, at any rate) questionable cover art, ‘On DSCH’ is a superb release. If you want to find out more about it, and hear some of the music, you can watch the launch video here.

Photos of Igor Levit at the Wigmore Hall and Barbican by the author. ‘On DSCH’ is now available on the Sony label.

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