Igor Levit’s Goldbergs were transcendental

1 June 2019

9:00 AM

1 June 2019

9:00 AM

Igor Levit has rapidly achieved cult status, as he certainly deserves. He has already reached the stage where he can programme enormous and pretty obscure works, such as Ronald Stevenson’s Passacaglia. Clearly, Levit’s taste runs to large-scale works, but his recently released disc, Life, shows his command of shorter pieces too.

His first concert in this run of three was Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a performance that commanded an instant hush and was greeted with almost unseemly cheering and stamping from the Wigmore audience. Levit began this masterpiece in a remarkably quiet way, almost casually, but with an amazing singing tone. Indeed, except for the punctuating rigorous canons, he cultivated cantabile throughout, his journey into the depths of this fathomless work being as different as possible from either of Glenn Gould’s recordings, long the gold standard for the Goldbergs. Performances of this work do tend towards the dogmatic, as I find with Andras Schiff, whom Levit admires.

For most of his performance Levit offered us the chance to respond as we liked, and it was only about halfway through that the intensity of his vision of the whole work gathered us for his transcendental treatment of its ultimate reaches. He imposed a lengthy silence before the 25th variation, the so-called ‘black pearl’, and drew it out to heavenly lengths. Then there was the fantastic progression to the thrilling virtuosity of the last variations, with the wonderfully rowdy ‘Quodlibet’ — Bach bringing us down to earth — before the repeat (with repeats) of the theme. That was an evening that one couldn’t forget.

Two evenings later it was a longer concert, with Beethoven’s Diabelli variations in the first half. It was — one can take it for granted — a captivating, individual and mischievous account, but I felt, as I did with the CD set of the same works, that Levit is more at home with the serenities of Bach than the combativeness of Beethoven, despite his deeply held radical political views. He set off at a furious pace, rather underplaying the Meistersingerish grandeur-cum-pomposity of the first variation, and gave, with a few exceptions, a slightly less characterful account than the masters of this piece do or have done. Many people would applaud that.

As it happens, I was at Peterhouse just over a fortnight ago for an electrifying account of the Diabellis by Piotr Anderszewski, which for the time being — together with Bruno Monsaingeon’s magnificent 2009 film of the pianist, who talks with great insight about the work — has possessed me. Anderszewski rightly points out that rather than ‘Variations’ the work should be ‘Transformations’, with Diabelli’s waltz being subject to every conceivable indignity and transcendence. Anderszewski hardly makes for comfortable listening. His dynamic range is extreme, the penultimate fugue as boisterous and threatening as Siegfried’s forging of Nothung. I know that two weeks ago Damian Thompson, also at the Peterhouse performance, took violent exception to it, which might have been just what Beethoven wanted. It seems to me that the whole point of the Diabellis is to shock us, without resorting to the firing-squad tactics that we have heard from Harnoncourt, or now from Adès, in conducting the symphonies. How do you make Beethoven shocking without being ugly? I didn’t feel that Levit had considered that or, if he had, he hadn’t solved it. Nonetheless his account was a distinguished one, and it was the elegance of the final minuet that stuck in the mind.

The second half of this concert was devoted to Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated, written in 1975. Not only do its militantly socialist intentions leave me cold, I can’t imagine how they would inflame anyone’s sympathies, though Levit obviously feels differently. Later I listened to Levit’s recording of the piece, and, thanks to YouTube, someone else’s with the score displayed as it went along. It allegedly ‘deconstructs’ the Diabellis, though that word has lost any meaning it ever had. The piece consists of a jaunty tune and 36 variations, together with a performer-composed cadenza, and lasts for about 65 minutes. It doesn’t have an idiom and is promiscuous in its employment of styles, ranging from banalities that could be 100 years old to passages that might have leaked out of Boulez’s IRCAM.

It is particularly unwise to play such a piece in close conjunction with a set of genuine variations, since they only expose the fake nature of the enterprise. But there are several recordings of it, so it must have a strong appeal for the political, if not the artistic, sympathies of distinguished performers besides Levit.

Igor Levit
Where: Wigmore Hall

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments