Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Opus 109
Fred Hersch: Variations on a Folksong (World Premiere)
Richard Wagner: Prelude from Tristan und Isolde (Arranged by Zoltán Kocsis)
Franz Liszt: Piano Sonata in B Minor
Igor Levit (Pianist)
I. Levit/F. Hersch (© Felix Broede-Sony Classical/Courtesy of the Artist)
“Music is liquid architecture; architecture is frozen music.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Had Goethe heard Igor Levit at Carnegie Hall last night, he would have blushed knowing that his metaphor was severely understated. Mr. Levit’s recital was not “liquid” architecture. It was soaring architecture.
Soaring and plunging and rising again. Not so much a ziggurat or a skyscraper as an imaginary structure for a cosmic metropolis.
Nor was this an eccentric building by any means. Mr. Levit is so rare a musician that dazzlement is not part of his artistry. Dazzling is for master magicians, wunderkind piano-players and Lady Gaga couturiers, all of them worthies.
Mr. Levit, though, seemed to understand the Delphic Secret of creation.
And attempting to reveal that secret in words would be a travesty of revelation.
True, the Russian-German pianist, still in his early 30’s, is hardly afraid of flamboyant contrasts in volume. Nor did he shy away from turning the frequent runs up the piano to liquid legatos, lines which should only be played on a Strad.
Yet during the most daring of Beethoven, Liszt and two arrangements of Richard Wagner, Mr. Levit would not allow attention to his muscular playing or acuity when called upon. Even his intensity–not for a single measure disregarded–was secondary to that all-embracing architectural wholeness, that sense of physically seizing the moments and building on them.
Mr. Levit’s reputation is an all-embracing love of...of music. His 19th Century titans are essayed without a second thought. He has an adoration for jazz, and the late Frederic Rzewski, he’s been on a recording with Miley Cyrus. Last night, though, with one exception, he played the colossi.
The one exception was a series of 20 variations on the song Shenandoah by the esteemed jazz pianist Fred Hersch. It was a pleasing diatonic work which could have been written by a young Brahms or Reger. The performance–light, liquid, assured–was more interesting than the composition.
True, Mr. Levit easily played the cadenzas, the left-hand solos, the quadruple octave runs (which bisected into different melodies).
It wasn’t Mr. Hersch’s jazz, but like so much cool cerebral jazz, it lacked sinew or spine.
So now we come to the giants. Mr. Levit opened with a Beethoven sonata that breathed enigmas. Should one take the opening measures as salon work? Prelude? Mr. Levit opened with the most limpid arpeggios, swiftly shifting to an arresting Adagio expressivo and then a ferocious, almost frightening central movement.
The real Igor Levit was shown in the final movement. Initially, Mr. Levit allowed almost an improvisatory feeling.
Then came the Delphic secret. He somehow–somehow!–broadened out the Andante, until without realizing it, he had built a marble structure, clear, graceful, towering then coming to a fertile earth.
For the second half, Mr. Levit tied together, without a pause an unusual Wagner arrangement to Liszt’s Sonata. (And save for a few Neanderthals in the audience who started to applaud, he almost succeeded.)
The late Zoltán Kocsis had arranged Wagner’s Tristan Prelude with orchestral dynamics.
Mr. Levit started with the most famous cadence in music, holding those low A notes with tension, with animal tensility.
Yet as he continued, nothing was mannered, certainly nothing was operatic. This was a 20-minute symphony, a piece of grandeur, a vehemence that was broiling just below the surface.
End with those pianissimo low notes, and start with the same chthonic depths for the Liszt B Minor Sonata.
Mr. Levit’s goal was a spaciousness, not of tone but of structure.
Many are the artists who take each section, playing fugue and melody, furies and calmness as individual sections. Again, Mr. Levit broke the mold. One could speak of his clarity, his dynamic range. But most important, he presented the one movement as it should be, with profound unitary communication.
After this, the last thing we needed was an encore. Mr. Levit provided one-but it was like a continuation of the second half. Tristan, the Liebestod with the Liszt arrangement. Crouched over the Steinway, head to the keys, he again proved his importance.
Not simply as an artist or a great pianist (as he is). But a Master-Builder of unity, cognition and a purely musical syntax.