“Ode to Joy”
Ludwig van Beethoven (trans. Franz Liszt): Symphony n° 9, opus 125: “Ode to Joy”
Igor Levit (piano)
Recording: Unknown venue (2020) – 3’40
Sony Classical (Distributed by Apple Music)
Igor Levit, the young German-Russian pianist, knows how to get to the heart of a matter.
In 2016 he delayed a performance to address the audience on tolerance and human rights. This May he live-streamed Erik Satie’s Vexations for a global audience, repeating the same four lines for nearly 20 hours to express the frustration of artists during the pandemic. Without fanfare, he has recorded the complete 32 Beethoven piano sonatas for release during the composer’s 250th birthday year.
Now, on the eve of that birthday, I have the pleasure of reviewing something much shorter, but perhaps even more to the point: Levit’s performance of the “Ode to Joy” from the Ninth Symphony, as transcribed by Franz Liszt. This transcription is less than four minutes in length but acts as a punctuation mark for all we have suffered, endured, and perhaps triumphed over in the memorable year of 2020.
The transcription begins at the point where the cellos and basses softly announce the familiar theme. It ends with some Lisztian flourishes and sinks back into the simplicity of the opening well before the first words ever heard in a symphony: “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne” (“Friends, let’s not have these somber tones”).
Of course, there are no cellos, basses and baritones in this recording. There is only Igor Levit. And Beethoven.
The theme begins meekly, in naked simplicity. It is a handful of seeds—plain, homely, covered with soil—sown by a farmer with a great vision. The farmer knows it will take much work, much cultivation to bring these small unprepossessing pieces to fruition. They look like little bits of stone with no value. But with care and nurturing, they take root and sprout. Fast forward to a time when all the previously untilled land—everything we think of as dirt, mud, and filth—is covered with glistening greenery and the seed has turned into a cornfield, a forest, a living world.
Beethoven’s music is nothing if not organic. Like seeds with careful tending, the tendrils of his music spread and insinuate themselves into our souls. A man of the cloth as well as a composer and musician, Liszt knew what he was doing when he took Beethoven’s own development of this theme early in the Ninth pretty much as is, then let it grow naturally into an inevitable conclusion. Liszt hands it off to the performer, and it is up to Levit to interpret the shape and flow of this little piece over the course of three minutes and forty seconds. This he does with customary brilliance, turning a short-lived miniature into a harkening of eternity.
And so together, we may say, Happy Birthday, Herr Beethoven. And thank you.