Piano Recital: Igor Levit
Bach — Bach/Busoni — Beethoven

Tonhalle Zurich, 2014-10-21

3-star rating

2014-10-25 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2014-11-03 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-07-28 — Brushed up for better readability

Igor Levit (© F. Broede)
Igor Levit (© F. Broede)

Table of Contents

The Artist

Igor Levit was born 1987 in Nizhny Novgorod (Gorky). In 1995 his family moved to Germany. He grew up with the piano (his mother is a pianist whose teacher had once studied with Heinrich Neuhaus), did his musical studies at the Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien Hannover and finished with the best notes ever given by that institution.

Aged 17, he was the youngest participant at the International Arthur Rubinstein Piano Master Competition in Tel Aviv, in 2005. He won the second prize, plus several special awards, such as the special prize for chamber music, and the audience award. The years following this success were dedicated to building a personal repertoire. It is refreshing to see that he did not jump to the late romantic, virtuosic showpieces. He rather laid the core of his repertoire around Beethoven and Bach: 2013 he produced a CD set with Beethoven’s late piano sonatas (opp.101, 106, 109 – 111), followed in 2014 with one covering the six Partitas BWV 825 – 830 forming the first part of J.S. Bach’s “Clavier-Übung”.

The Program, as Announced

The printed program for this concert included parts from Levit’s published repertoire (Partita No.3 in A minor by Bach, and the Piano Sonata No.32 in C minor, op.111 by Beethoven). It also included a composition by Ferruccio Busoni (after melodies by J.S. Bach), plus two additional sonatas by Beethoven: the short Piano Sonata No.22 in F major, op.54, and the Piano Sonata No.15 in D major, op.28, called “Pastoral”:

Program piano recital Igor Levit, Tonhalle Zurich, 2014-10-21

Those who expected to hear how Levit is expanding his repertoire towards the early Beethoven sonatas may have been (partly) disappointed. The program began with a lengthy announcement by the artist, hardly understandable in the back of the audience. He stated that during the preparation he had been reconsidering the programming of this concert. And he found that the selected Partita in A minor and the sonata in D major op.28 didn’t really fit into the rest of the program. He therefore decided to make a “minor adjustment”, replacing Bach’s Partita No.3 with the Partita No.2 in C minor, and playing Beethoven’s late sonata in A♭ major, op.110 in lieu of op.28. Both are pieces from his published repertoire.

I wondered whether this was marketing for his released CD sets. From a musical point-of-view, the changes made sense, though. But wasn’t that foreseeable when putting together the program for this concert?

Well, on to the actual music in this concert…

Comments on the Performance

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827): Piano Sonata No.22 in F major, op.54

Already the first bars in Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in F major, op.54 made it obvious: in Levit’s Beethoven, quiet, gentle tones and articulation dominate. Levit avoids harsh contrasts, forms soft, smooth transitions. This has the disadvantage of blurring the structure of a composition (such as the components of a sonata movement) to the listener. Igor Levit’s strength is in intimacy, softness, legato, a gentle, harmonious phrasing in big arches. Often, f is merely mf, ff only f, and at the bottom end of the dynamic scale, the artist rather risks merely hinting, if not omitting a chord, rather than disrupting a phrase through a tone that may stand out too much.

In general, he prefers a rather slow, careful tempo. Strangely, in the first movement (In tempo d’un menuetto), he shortened the middle part of the recapitulation: bars 118ff. were replaced by a simpler segment from an earlier part of the movement. Was this a cleverly concealed memory lapse or a deliberate simplification? The latter is hardly imaginable. However, something similar could be observed in the second movement, where the repetition of the second part of the Allegretto section was shortened to about half its size. If this was deliberate, this is rather questionable. If the movement appeared too long (well, this is one of Beethoven’s shortest piano sonatas!), it would be preferable to skip an entire repetition.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750): Partita No.2 in C minor, BWV 826

As one would expect, Igor Levit also applied his soft articulation to J.S. Bach’s Partita No.2 in C minor, BWV 826. He does not try imitating the harpsichord, plays predominantly legato, frequently also using the sustain pedal to support the legato. Levit’s introduction to the first movement (Grave, Adagio) avoids rhythmic edges, he arpeggiates chords, avoids (or rather: softens) over-punctuations. That’s not quite the idea of a French Overture in Bach’s time. In the following parts of the first movement (Andante — Allegro) the pianist avoided excessive highlighting of melody voices, rather focused on forming broad, dynamic arches.

The Allemande was extremely meditative, even slow. I find this rather questionable, given the alla breve notation.

Also the Courante remains very calm and loses all dance character. On a harpsichord, such a tempo may be legitimate, as the player can use articulation to create “local tension” in motifs and melodies. But on a modern piano (especially if played so softly), a faster tempo is required.

Maybe the best movement in this interpretation was the Sarabande: wonderfully calm, measured, except for the somewhat excessive, romantic ritardando at the end.

In contrast, the following Rondeau often seemed a bit pushed: a substitute for tension in motifs through articulation and “Klangrede“?

Finally, the Capriccio was again rather smooth and mellow in the articulation. At least, this avoided making the movement sound like a Ragtime (as it happens even with prominent harpsichordists!). Levit used extra, well-fitting ornaments, sparingly in the first pass, a little more frequently in the second pass for repeated sections.

Overall, it was a soft, maybe overly romantic interpretation that could barely be farther away from what the composer must have had in mind for his instrument(s). The music is tolerant and survived this “treatment”. But was it still Bach?

Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.31 in A♭ major, op.110

The Piano Sonata in A♭ major, op.110 by Ludwig van Beethoven essentially followed the pattern set in op.54. In Levit’s playing, the melody line in the Moderato cantabile molto espressivo was very vocal, wonderfully singing, and really heart-felt. Levit often just hints at dynamic annotations and sforzandi, his playing is fluent, harmonious. Overall, an excellent realization of this movement. In the Allegro molto, one might have wished for a more vivid, less tamed interpretation of Beethoven’s rebelling eruptions in the f parts with their wild syncopes.

There was lots of expression in the following Adagio ma non troppo. However, this was extremely slow. Beethoven not only annotates Recitativo and cantabile, but also clearly Klagender Gesang / Arioso dolente (mourning song / pain-driven Arioso). In other words: he was explicitly thinking of a human voice. At this tempo, however, the listener will be unable to follow / grasp the melody. And a singer would most definitely run out of breath with such slow phrases. On top of that, the annotation isn’t just Adagio (i.e., calm, not “slow”, a common mis-perception), but Adagio ma non troppo (meaning: not too calm!). This could easily (and should) be played more dramatically.

In the final fugue and its subsequent inversion (actually not an “inverted fugue”, but rather a fugue where the theme is inverted) it would have been nice to have more differentiation, both in the reading of dynamic annotations, as well as between the voices. Here, the movement was in danger of being too uniform, almost sonic mush. Along the same lines, the preparation to the final climax lacked some tension.

Ferruccio Busoni (1866 – 1924): “Fantasia after J.S. Bach”, BV 253

After the intermission, Igor Levit played the “Fantasia after J.S. Bach”, BV 253 by Ferruccio Busoni (1866 – 1924). For once, this is not a transcription of Bach’s music for organ, or of a composition such as the famous Chaconne for solo violin. It’s a free fantasy on chorale melodies that Bach used in various organ compositions, such as BWV 766, 703, and 602. In the meditative first part, Levit may have disappointed those who expected to hear grandiose keyboard / octave thundering: here, a gentle chorale melody was accompanied by soft rumbling in the bass, in late-romantic harmonies.

The accompaniment then slowly moved up into higher tonal ranges, and only after about 9 minutes, with the Christmas hymn “Gottes Sohn ist kommen” (The Son of God has come), there is a crescendo up to a short climax. But then the music again retracts for a meditative, calm phase. This is followed by a longer, impressive increase, with dense polyphonic texture, typical for Busoni. But the piece ends in serene tranquility, very soft, in the depth of the low register. It’s a really wonderful piece of music, as if it was tailored for Igor Levit. Other pianists may have indulged in dynamic excesses. Igor Levit can impress the audience without that: well done!

From Busoni to Beethoven

Igor Levit’s appearance is unpretentious, modest, friendly. When he plays, he does not appear to interact with the audience, but typically remains bowed over the keyboard, in an intimate dialog with the instrument (his press photo is pretty close to reality in a concert). Already in the first half of the concert, he did not leave the podium between the pieces: maybe in order to keep the applause short?

When the Busoni piece died away in silence, Levit obviously did not want the atmosphere destroyed by applause: he remained bowed over the keyboard, motionless, with his hands over the keys. He managed to create and maintain half a minute of tense silence. After this, he started immediately with Beethoven’s op.111. Even though the start of that sonata is rather abrupt, almost harsh, it felt like a logical continuation at this point. This transition was one of the highlights of this recital.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.32 in C minor, op.111

The first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in C minor, op.111 starts with demisemiquavers as upbeat to double-punctuated quavers. In Levit’s hands, those double punctuations were clearly on the weak side, the upbeats too long, the tempo very broad. Maybe the artist wanted to attenuate the harshness of this Maestoso? In the second part of that movement, Allegro con brio ed appassionato, such softening is no longer possible. Here, even Igor Levit is working with fortissimo, unraveling the harsh language in this movement. It’s a monumental composition, comparable only to parts of the Sonata op.106, “Hammerklavier”. It was a good interpretation, even though some fast figurations lacked the ultimate rhythmic clarity, possibly attributable to the live performance.

Finally, Beethoven’s last sonata movement, an Arietta with nine variations: music in which Levit really feels at home. In the Arietta itself (the theme for the variations), the tempo was at the lower limit. But in the variations, Igor Levit switched to a faster pace, which he then kept up to the end, forming long phrases and an impressive increase to the last climax. The movement did not fail to move and impress the listeners (despite all the coughing in the audience).

Encore — Ferruccio Busoni: Transcription of J.S. Bach’s Chorale Prelude BWV 659

The artist received a standing ovation, which he rewarded with an encore. One could argue that any music (and even the well-deserved applause!) would disrupt the listener’s impression and emotions from the last movement. However, Ferruccio Busoni’s Piano Transcription of J.S. Bach’s Chorale Prelude BWV 659 on “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Now come, Savior of the gentiles) proved to be a very good fit, an introverted, almost meditative piece. Levit played it again in a rather broad tempo.


It was an interesting concert (despite—or maybe thanks to—the program changes!). Igor Levit is an equally interesting pianist. In my view maybe not in the very top league, but with distinct, well-considered views on the compositions in his repertoire. I’m not enthusiastic about his Bach (but I’m skeptical in general about playing Bach on a modern piano anyway). I also do have reservations about some of his Beethoven, but I did particularly enjoy the lyrical aspects of his playing, as well as his view on Busoni. Even where I disagree with his interpretation, I have to concede that his playing is well-considered and careful. Nothing is casual or superficial, let alone mere entertainment. In that sense, he does “speak” to the listener directly.

Addendum 1

For the same concert, I have also written a (much shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of that German review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack. I create the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.

Addendum 2

For some of the compositions in this concert I have written dedicated blog posts, comparing selected recordings:

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