Magazine article Gramophone

'Variations Are a Journey: You Become Another Person': Tackling Three Sets of Variations by Bach, Beethoven and Rzewski on a Single Recording Is as Great a Challenge as Any Pianist Can Face, but It's Just Another Example of Igor Levit's Uncompromising Determination, Finds Hugo Shirley

Magazine article Gramophone

'Variations Are a Journey: You Become Another Person': Tackling Three Sets of Variations by Bach, Beethoven and Rzewski on a Single Recording Is as Great a Challenge as Any Pianist Can Face, but It's Just Another Example of Igor Levit's Uncompromising Determination, Finds Hugo Shirley

Article excerpt

When Marc-Andre Hamelin released his recording of Frederic Rzewski's The People United Will Never Be Defeated! in 1999, Bryce Morrison wrote in these pages how he was impatient to see the Canadian pianist tackle Bach's Goldberg Variations and Beethoven's Diabelli Variations as well. That desire, articulated with a hint of wishful thinking, hasn't yet come to pass --at least not from Hamelin. Step up Igor Levit. His new three-disc album offers all three works in a project that straddles nearly two-and-a-half centuries of the piano literature, presenting music that offers some of the greatest intellectual, musical and technical challenges a pianist can face.

Levit is not one to shy away from challenges, however. In just a short time the pianist, who was born in 1987 in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, but moved to Germany with his family at the age of eight, has established himself as one of the most fascinating instrumentalists around. His first two Sony discs, nominated for Gramophone Awards last year and this year, were of the late Beethoven sonatas and Bach Partitas. But the new set underlines that there's a great deal more to him than that Big-B focus.

When I meet Levit in Berlin he is quick to make clear that he sees these composers as a trinity of equal importance. He doesn't feel for one moment any sense of special pleading in the inclusion of Rzewski, the radical, consonant-heavy American composer (the name is pronounced 'jefski') whose People United was composed in 1975 as a modern complement to Beethoven's great set of 33 variations on Diabelli's simple little waltz. The fact that it has 36 variations, following the 33 and 30 'Veranderungen' (the German word implies something more transformational than the somewhat flat English equivalent) of the Diabellis and the Goldbergs respectively, offers just one pleasing numerical development between these works, with Bach's set providing a foundational lexicon of variation techniques that both Beethoven and Rzewski build upon.

It's the morning after the final session. The works have been recorded in three four-day chunks over the course of several months in Berlin's Funkhaus Nalepastrasse--a remarkable purpose-built recording venue erected in the 1960s German Democratic Republic in an industrial area of what was the city's Kopenick district. (One of the designers, Gerhard Steinke, is still alive, Levit tells me excitedly: 'He's in his mid-90s and used to run a studio for electronic music in the GDR. Frederic knows him and wrote a piece for him called Zoologische Garten.') The previous evening it was the Goldbergs, in a final session that consisted of a run-through of the complete work in front of an invited audience of 'friends, colleagues,' he says, and --if the left-wing dimension of Rzewski's work isn't making me mishear--'comrades'.

As we sit down to talk, I imagine Levit might well rather be elsewhere, and towards the end of the conversation he confides he's desperate to get back to Hanover for a couple of days in the gap between engagements. He's polite and completely engaged, however; he's an early riser in any case, he tells me. I immediately find out it doesn't take much to ignite the conversation: high energy and a combination of boundless enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity laced with a mischievous sense of the absurd all manifest themselves in speech that darts between subjects, effervescent on the surface but with frequent plunges into the philosophical depths.

His English is excellent but nevertheless struggles to keep up with his ideas, which are articulated with an honest candour that caused minor controversy in a recent interview, in which he was quoted as saying Chopin was 'dumb'. His thoughts regarding the composer come across clearly in our conversation, though. He loves the music dearly, but claims, 'I don't play Chopin, because I simply think I'm really bad at it.' This honesty is matched by generosity towards his peers: 'I hear a colleague like Rafai [Blechacz], and I think it's right. …

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