Igor Levit is a serious musician. That term generally suggests a repertoire devoid of light-hearted lollipops (true), exclusively devoted to a limited range of serious mainstream masterpieces. As to the latter, it is not quite the case. From the start Levit has kept a few surprises up his sleeve. His first notable recording of Bach’s Goldberg and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations was coupled with Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated.
In this new release entitled Encounter, Levit follows Bach, Brahms and Reger with the final piano work by the American Morton Feldman (1926-1987): the 29-minute long Palais de Mari. Despite the ostensibly wide-ranging programme, much trumpeted in the somewhat gushing notes, this is primarily a late-19th-century / early-20th-century recital. The first disc features Ferruccio Buskin’s piano transcriptions of ten of Bach’s Chorale Preludes and Brahms’s Six Chorale Preludes. The second disc is devoted to Max Reger’s transcriptions of Brahms’s Four Serious Songs; Reger’s own Nachtlied(transcribed by Markus Becker, who memorably recorded all of Reger’s solo piano music, except this piece!) and then Feldman, the apparent odd man out.
The Bach/Busoni suits Levit’s unostentatious but impressively immaculate pianism. Busoni succeeded in translating the long-held tones of the chorale themes and their busy accompaniments onto a single keyboard, and Levit’s superb textural balancing keeps these elements well apart. Moreover, his accompanying figures – whether scales or arpeggios – are superhumanly even. The best-known chorale here, “Wachet auf”, BWV140, is lovingly presented, its familiar theme given a winning tonal warmth. Within the genre, these ten pieces contain a good deal of variety: The scurrying “Nun freut euch”, BWV734, is a dazzling showpiece, although I prefer Wilhelm Kempff’s transcription (especially as recorded by Víkingur Ólafsson).
Predictably, the atmosphere grows sombre when get to Brahms. His Chorale Preludes have none of Bach’s variety, and while they contain some touching harmonies, they strike me as much of a muchness. Things become even more turgid with the transcriptions of Brahms’s late Four Serious Songs. Reger was a notable organist, but a more heavy-handed piano transcriber than Busoni. The first song, a glum funeral march, at least boasts a bracing spray of piano figuration two thirds of the way through.
Feldman’s late music is notable for its length, slow moving progress, and pared-back, seemingly random textures. His distinctive sound world exists outside of our usual idea of time: It is mesmerising, but the listener needs to be in a relaxed space to enter into it properly. For the musician, control is everything here; needless to say, Levit masters every challenge of timing and subtle dynamic gradation. This is a kind of anti-virtuosity, but equally demanding.
In the context of this recital, it is tempting to hear Palais de Mari as another chorale: ethereal, vague and deconstructed, almost as if we had taken a quick snooze during the Brahms and in our semi-somnolent state were overhearing ghostly snatches of distant music.
Once again, Igor Levit has produced a major recording.
Music by: Bach/Busoni, Brahms, Feldman
Performer: Igor Levit p
Label: Sony 19439786572 (2CD)