Igor Levit shows world-class artistry at Pickman Hall

February 9, 2017 at 11:11 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Igor Levit performed Wednesday night at xx hall for the Celebrity Series.

Igor Levit performed Wednesday night at Pickman Hall for the Celebrity Series.

Ever since Igor Levit released his debut recording of Beethoven’s late pianos sonatas on the Sony label in 2013, superlatives have followed him everywhere. Critics have referred to the Russian-born German musician as the “pianist of the century.” His most recent recording, a Herculean mix of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, is no less captivating for its technical brilliance and sparkling musicianship. The disc won the Recording of the Year Award from Gramophone last year. Levit, it seems, is on the roll of a lifetime.

Wednesday night at Pickman Hall, Levit gave his first Boston solo recital as part of the Celebrity Series. The program, which paired the Diabelli Variations with Rzewski’s North American Ballad No. 5, showed just what all the fuss has been about.

Levit commands a stellar technique as well as firm sense of the musical line. Phrases are cut in sharp edges where necessary. His tone is colorful, bright in crisp passages and smooth and creamy in the more lyrical sections. His sound, moreover, has personal warmth, and that is largely due to his intimate approach to the instrument. He leans in to the keyboard, his free hands cut the air in a Gouldian fashion like a conductor, and his head hovers just above the keys as if lost in a prayer.

He has the power to make the most difficult music sound inviting, and that was the case with his performance of Rzewski’s piece. Since encountering Marc Andre Hamelin’s acclaimed recording of The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, Levit has been drawn to the American composer’s music. Like those blazing variations, the North American Ballads pull angular modernisms from songs dealing with themes of social justice. In Levit’s hands, the fifth Ballad is a pleasure to experience. Based on the tune “It makes a long time man feel bad,” a song about a man serving a life sentence, Rzewski’s piece unfolds in a web of colorful sounds. The pianist is called upon to slap the wooden body of the piano, accompany himself while whistling, and lift and drop a chain in rhythm with bluesy chords.

Some of Rzewski’s twenty-four variations are improvisatory. Before the piece ended, Levit’s wandering figures coalesced into thundering cluster chords, played with splayed hands and forearms. Other movements offered a heady mix of pointillisms and Gershwinesque romantic sweeps. In one variation, Levit abstracted the song into fragments and riffs that took him all over the keyboard while he continued to shape the phrases with a bluesy quality. At piece’s end, Levit dropped the chain onto a stool. When it fell to floor, he wasn’t fazed and simply reached down to the ground and continued to lift and drop it for crunching rhythms. Improvisation, here, brought a touch of humor to a serious piece.

Levit is a remarkable interpreter of Beethoven’s music. His performance of the Diabelli Variations showed why the piece stands as one of the supreme examples of the form. Spanning thirty-three variations and an hour in length, the work explores a wide variety of styles, from pompous marches, twirling minuets, to passages of searching lyricism. Beethoven was especially gifted at making much out of simple materials; in this case, a rather banal waltz serves as the point of inspiration.

For the theme, Levit’s playing was quick and nimble, as if the pianist couldn’t wait to get to the real material. In the first and ninth variations, Levit punched out the notes like keys on a typewriter. Percussive octaves in the left hand fell like stones. In other movements Levit’s playing turned buttery. The third variation was poetic, the fourteenth reverential. The haunting chords of chorale-like twentieth variation flickered like candles in a window.

Levit also found the humor in the score. In the twenty-second variation, a riff on Mozart’s “Notte e giorno faticar” from Don Giovanni, the melodic turns seemed to giggle in their sprightly motion. But the pianist’s strength lies in his precision and power. The fugue of the thirty-second variation was heavy-handed without each voice losing clarity. Levit’s forceful approach resulted in a few digital slips in the twenty-seventh variation, but they didn’t slow him down, and the ensuing variation was bold and percussive.

The opening set of pieces, three of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues Op.87, showed a more introspective side of Levit’s playing. His performance of the Prelude in C-sharp minor flowed in song-like phrases. The E minor Prelude pulsed with resonant low notes for a performance of deep mystery. The fugues ranged from soft elegance to passages of spinning intensity. Each had dimension, the lines clear in their thick textures.

This was music making of the highest order, and Levit is only at the beginning of his career.

The Celebrity Series will feature pianist Richard Goode and the Budapest Festival Orchestra in an all-Beethoven program 3 p.m. Sunday at Symphony Hall. celebrityseries.org; 617- 482-6661.

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