Fort Worth — Igor Levit, who performed a solo recital Thursday evening as part of The Cliburn at the Kimbell series, first entered my field of vision in 2014, when critic Alex Ross, writing for The New Yorker, wrote this glowing review of Levit’s first major-label recording, of late Beethoven sonatas. I promptly bought them, and like Ross, was transported by Levit’s playing. The 30-year-old Levit has subsequently released two more recordings, one of Bach’s keyboard partitas and another combining three very different sets of keyboard variations: Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, and Fredric Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated!
Of course, recordings are one thing, and live performances can be very much another. Luckily for us, Levit’s Fort Worth performance was excellent, but differently so than the recordings. His recorded Beethoven is technically nearly flawless, as one would expect. While in live performance, especially nursing a cold as he was Thursday, his playing is both less flawless and more reassuringly human.
The quirky program began with Brahms’ transcription of Bach’s colossal Chaconne in D Minor for Solo Violin from the Partita No. 2, BWV 1004. Brahms said of this work, “If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived, the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.” At least five piano transcriptions of this piece exist, as do myriad other transcriptions for other instruments. Brahms’ version, for left hand only, levels the playing field a bit—just five fingers versus the original’s four strings. But there are still crucial differences—violinists playing on modern instruments cannot play all four strings at once, so must play rolled chords.
Keyboardists, of course, can easily play true chords. While this ability enables a greater variety of phrasing choices, it also eliminates the anticipatory drama of the rolled chords, not an insignificant loss. Levit chose not to emulate a violinistic sound, but rather to create an inherently pianistic one. Perhaps the greatest lesson here is one about Bach’s adaptability: a violin work by Bach, arranged by Brahms, played on a modern Steinway—and it still, mostly, works.
Next up were three of Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87. The A major No. 7 was deliciously light; Levit exhibited marvelous attention to detail. While No. 18 and No. 12 are both in minor keys, the former is more melancholic, while the latter is truly dark. Levit’s command of a wide tonal palette and skillful use of pedal enabled him to capture both moods.
The first half of the program concluded with Robert Schumann’s Ghost Variations. This theme and set of five variations is rarely heard, and was the last keyboard work Schumann ever wrote, completed just before and was institutionalized for mental illness. Schumann believed that the theme was dictated to him by angelic voices. This is poignant music, and Levit’s playing was transporting: beautiful, sensitive, and lyrical.
The second half of the program was at least as unconventional as the first. Two pieces partly by Lizst were featured. Partly? Yes, the first was Wagner’s “Solemn March to the Holy Grail” from Parsifal, as arranged by Wagner’s son-in-law Lizst for keyboard. The other was Busoni’s piano transcription of Lizst’s organ Fantasy and Fugue on the chorale “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam”—the chorale itself is from a Meyerbeer opera. So in this program of multiple transcriptions, the last one was a multi-layered doozy. Interestingly, Levit played both Lizst-ish pieces attacca, without a break for applause in between. In the Parsifal March, Levit exhibited thoughtful, introspective lyricism, while the Fantasy and Fugue enabled sheer virtuosity. Even here, though, Levit proved himself to be a modest, unshowy performer, exhibiting formidable technique without a hint of the keyboard-banging so distressingly trendy among major young pianists, especially those with reduplicated names.
While this was one of the odder recital programs we’re likely to hear anytime soon, Levit is an extraordinary talent. Since he’s becoming known as a Beethoven interpreter, I was a bit disappointed that he chose not to program that composer. But maybe next time—I look forward to it.