Yesterday Igor Levit demonstrated that he has earned his position as one of the leading pianists of our time in a singular concert last night at Tanglewood. He opened with an articulate rendering of Beethoven’s Variations and Fugue in E-flat, Opus 35 that brought the listener into the very act of rendering notes to sound, giving us a joyful ride into the complex world of Beethoven’s imagination on a theme. Levit plays with an intensity that might be compared to Daniil Trifanov, leavened however, with freshness and devotion to the idea of honest interpretation. Levit brings us a powerful presence; his restraint is power relinquished and he uses it with effect. Levit does not overplay or overwhelm. He takes delight in sharing his music with an audience captivated by every phrase, every note.
The second piece on the program was a seldom heard Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte, Opus 41 by Schoenberg that is a setting, composed in 1942, to a poem by Lord Byron that was read in a clear and sonorous voice by Douglas Williams. The JACK Quartet with Levit at the piano provided the musical accompaniment. A jarringly brisk, jumpy, choppy, and testing extreme was the texture of how I heard this exciting music. Doug Williams voice was well-suited to the testing, constantly shifting tempos that made Byron’s early 19th century Spenserian verse critical of Napoleon seem modern and very 20th century.
The final piece (that in retrospect was introduced by what went before) was a long set of variations composed by Frederic Rzewski entitled The People Will Never Be Defeated, based on a song by Chilean song-writer Sergio Oretga, as a song of resistance to the gratuitous imposition by the United States of Pinochet— as an un-elected dictator. Rzwewski often brings political statements into his music and here political sentiments might be found in the complex evolution of these variations with moments of storm, strife, and subsiding moments of calm. The program notes described the writing as “transparent and pointillistic…chordal … wild and abandoned…filigreed and improvisational…bluesy, mechanical baroque toccata-like, Lisztian….The range is extraordinary.”
The preceding Beethoven may well have been Rzewski’s inspiration. He did it one better in the sense that he made consciously 20th century music that built on Schoenberg, Eliot Carter, and all that went before, creating a demanding piece of complexity, power, and drama that nevertheless fitted into the framework of variations. It brought robust cheers from an appreciative audience.