Feb 10 – The press release said that Igor Levit’s piano recital at Zankel Hall was one the season’s most anticipated musical events. We found out why on Friday night as we joined a sold-out house that was full of anticipation. Two hours later we would be in a musically induced trance: we were so filled with impressions it would take time to sort them out.
The three Preludes and Fugues from Op 87 that opened the concert (nos. 10, 4, and 12) draw on Bach, and then move on to abstract material that makes it uniquely Shostakovich. Levit played these pieces with studious intensity; every note and every phrase was rendered with extreme precision, every space defined a silence, so silence itself became the space in which these sounds existed. Levit has recorded the Goldberg Variations, so his familiarity with Bach fugues runs deep. There was something mathematical in the conception: it all sounded if each note fitted a precise mathematical niche, the result of a complex algebraic expression, even though those notes were not chromatic and seemed plucked from the ether, yet it all made perfect sense. I think this work may exist in the space of physics, a universal space that we can only comprehend through music.
Levit moved seamlessly into the second piece which was a premier by Frederic Rzeweski—Dreams, Part II—that was played with equal intensity. The four sections, Bells, Fireflies, Ruins and Wake Up, described, I suppose, four musical dreams. We heard bells, fireflies flitting in a shimmering summer night, we could imagine a dreamlike exploration of corridors, rooms, walls and turrets of a ruin, and we can imagine the agony of awakening into the ugly reality of the present with its mechanical-electrical confusions. There was an element of humor that is a hallmark of Rzeweski’s music. I should reveal that Rzewski was a high school classmate and that I have been in awe of his talent for some time. I well recall a concert devoted to his music given in this same hall, so it was only fitting that Carnegie Hall commissioned this piece. It is one of his finest works and superbly played. The composer was on hand to take a bow. A YouTube recording appears below.
After the intermission, we heard Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations played from memory. Again, there was a sustained intensity that kept the audience is a state of enthrallment. The variations are not just different ways of playing a theme; as performed by Levit, they involve intense feelings of quiet, of expectancy, of fear of the unknown, and exploration of the unknowable. We are taken on a voyage with storms and calms, we hear crashing waves and stillness with a gentle ripples on a pond; we hear shimmering lights and profound darkness. It is an experience not just of sound, but of emotion powerfully communicated.
The encore was a simple but profound ditty of Dmitry Shostakovich—a perfect bon mot to conclude an evening of fabulous music.