Piano Recital: Igor Levit
Shostakovich: 24 Preludes & Fugues, op.87
Tonhalle Zurich, 2017-06-08
This was the second time that I experienced the Russian-German pianist Igor Levit (*1987). I have written a review for the first recital (also in the Tonhalle Zurich), some 3 years ago, on 2014-10-21. In the review I have included some remarks on the pianist’s biography, more can be found on Wikipedia. I won’t repeat myself here. Instead of dwelling in Igor Levit’s biography, I decided to write down a few thoughts about a pianist’s repertoire and career choices:
Career and Competition
Becoming a concertizing musician is not an easy Sunday walk. This is particularly true for pianists, who are facing fierce competition by countless contenders. Brilliant exams, such as the one that Igor Levit achieved in 2009 at the Hannover Academy of Music are almost a must, successes at international competitions are of course helpful (Levit won the second prize at the Arthur Rubinstein Competition in Jerusalem in 2005, along with several other prizes), but by no means a guarantee for lasting success.
Also a broad repertoire is helpful, as long as the breadth isn’t achieved at the cost of depth. The contrary can be pivotal in launching a career, too, e.g., when an artist finds a niche for him or herself—a niche that is not too exotic, yet isn’t being explored by too many contenders. Igor Levit tried both options: his first approach was a jump into hot, competitive territory: he recorded the six Partitas BWV 825 – 830 (Clavier-Übung, Part I) by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750), as well as the late piano sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827), and he traveled the international stages with these works. At the same time, he worked at expanding his repertoire.
A Suitable Niche?
At some point, Levit apparently decided to venture into the big sets of Variations: Bach’s “Goldberg Variations”, BWV 988, Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations, op.120, as well as the 36 Variations on “El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido!” (“The People United Will Never Be Defeated!”) by Frederic Rzewski (*1938). He recorded these variation sets and toured the concert stages with them. Among these, Beethoven’s (I think) and Rzewski’s cycles are intended for the concert podium, but I don’t think Bach wrote his Goldberg variations with public performances in mind. Yet, all these cycles incorporate an overall scheme of a simple theme consequently evolving through variations towards technical, polyphonic, and/or harmonic complexity.
Shostakovich’s op.87 as Point in Case?
The 24 Preludes and Fugues op.87 by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975) go a step beyond the big, cyclic form. Shostakovich’s cycle is based in Bach’s two cycles of “Das Wohltemperierte Clavier” (“The Well-Tempered Clavier”, see below). Bach’s first cycle may occasionally be presented in concerts, but in both cycles, a concert performance was not intended by the composer, nor is there any particular reason to perform a full cycle of 24 preludes and fugues in one single concert. The second volume is longer and exceeds the duration of a typical concert. The same can be said about Shostakovich’s cycle op.87: in the extreme case, it can be done in a single concert, but in reality is rarely performed this way. There are of course integral recordings, but very often (even in recordings) pianists merely play a selection, if not even a single Prelude/Fugue pair.
In concerts, the reason for such selective performances is in the duration of the complete cycle. However, the complete cycle also imposes substantial physical, technical, and intellectual demands on the artist. This is particularly true for the fugues: unlike those in Bach’s cycles, the fugues feature a minimum amount of “free” episodes, i.e., the typically 3- of 4-part polyphony are almost entirely theme-bound. This implies outstanding dynamic and articulatory control, in order for the music to remain transparent, and for the listener to be able to recognize and identify the fugue themes while played, also without having access to a score.
A Word on Judging a Concert Performance
For this case, I’d like to add some remarks on judging such an integral performance: one should not compare such a performance with a CD recording, let alone recordings or performances of individual Prelude/Fugue pairs. A CD recording will almost by definition resemble the performance of a single Prelude/Fugue pair, as each track, or at best each pair, will be recorded individually (and usually repeatedly, in order for the engineer to be able to make corrections). On top of that, owners of such an integral CD recording are unlikely to listen to the entire cycle in one single session. So, in such recordings, a pianist will focus on the details in phrasing, dynamics and articulation for every single piece or pair individually.
In contrast, in an integral concert performance with its duration of over 2.5 hours (pure playing time, excluding intermissions), the pianist will try keeping a view of the entire cycle, i.e., to form an overall dramatic arch. At the same time, (s)he will also try & need to economize on the physical forces / reserves, such that the tension remains intact up to the last Fugue (D minor), or up to the Fugue in G♯ minor prior to an intermission after 12 Prelude/Fugue pairs. To some degree, this reduces the focus on individual pieces, in favor of the overall performance.
Shostakovich: 24 Preludes & Fugues, op.87
As mentioned, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975) based the concept of his op.87 on Bach’s well-known two cycles of “Das Wohltemperierte Clavier” (volume I, BWV 846 – 869; volume II, BWV 870 – 893). In each of his cycles, Bach steps through all the tonalities in a chromatic fashion: C, C♯, and so on. Each step is followed by the minor tonality on the same note, i.e., C major, C minor, C♯ major, C♯ minor, and so on. And for each of these tonalities there is a prelude and a fugue.
In contrast, Shostakovich does not step through the tonalities in chromatic fashion, but rather by following the cycle of fifths (C, G, D, A, E, etc.). Also, he has each Prelude/Fugue pair followed by its associated minor tonality (C major -> a minor, G major -> E minor, etc.), rather than (as Bach) the minor tonality at the same level (C major -> C minor, etc.).
I have also discussed Shostakovich’s cycle in a separate posting, comparing two CD recordings.
Listing of the Cycle
Here’s the list of the Prelude/Fugue pair, as performed in this concert, with an intermission after the Fugue in G♯ minor:
- 1. Prelude & Fugue in C major
- 2. Prelude & Fugue in A minor
- 3. Prelude & Fugue in G major
- 4. Prelude & Fugue in E minor
- 5. Prelude & Fugue in D major
- 6. Prelude & Fugue in B minor
- 7. Prelude & Fugue in A major
- 8. Prelude & Fugue in F♯ minor
- 9. Prelude & Fugue in E major
- 10. Prelude & Fugue in C♯ minor
- 11. Prelude & Fugue in B major
- 12. Prelude & Fugue in G♯ minor
- 13. Prelude & Fugue in F♯ major
- 14. Prelude & Fugue in E♭ minor
- 15. Prelude & Fugue in D♭ major
- 16. Prelude & Fugue in B♭ minor
- 17. Prelude & Fugue in A♭ major
- 18. Prelude & Fugue in F minor
- 19. Prelude & Fugue in E♭ major
- 20. Prelude & Fugue in C minor
- 21. Prelude & Fugue in B♭ major
- 22. Prelude & Fugue in G minor
- 23. Prelude & Fugue in F major
- 24. Prelude & Fugue in D minor
Let me keep my comments by Prelude/Fugue pair — I’ll summarize my findings at the end of this posting, below.
1. Prelude & Fugue in C major
A silent, careful beginning (p, dolce in the score), very cautious in the dynamics, morendo towards the end. Levit appears to point out the harmonious aspect, rather than dissonances. I liked the natural, organic tempo in the fugue. It is well-balanced dynamically, also starts all pp, ending in a morendo. Very harmonious forming of the climaxes.
2. Prelude & Fugue in A minor
Nicely flowing in the prelude with its rolling, fast semiquavers (the score calls for sempre legato)—warming up the fingers! Excellent flow also in the fugue, though now a little more aggressive, pointing out the strong accents in the left hand.
3. Prelude & Fugue in G major
Prelude: enough sustain pedal, I think (too much, occasionally?), focusing on drama rather than clarity. This contrasts with the fugue, wich was playful, definitely not academic, nor dry.
4. Prelude & Fugue in E minor
Here, the quavers (middle voice) remained in the focus, along with the voice in the descant, while the bass accompaniment was very calm, soft, inconspicuous, up to the very lyrical, silent ending. Fugue: starts extremely retained, p dynamics form the basis here. Very nice build-up (particularly in the second half, where the quaver theme joins in), singing in all instances of the fugue theme. I found the concert grand (Steinway D) to be in excellent shape, well-tuned.
5. Prelude & Fugue in D major
Levit keeps the focus on the melody lines (initially in the bass, later in the descant) and on the legato quaver motifs. Also here, the fugue is not an academic exercise, but a lively (occasionally chattering) discussion between the voices—very good!
6. Prelude & Fugue in B minor
Very accentuated in the double punctuations, but not clipped: the demisemiquavers feel more (almost) like arpeggiated keyboard touch. The fugue is clear, transparent, but remains harmonious, organic.
7. Prelude & Fugue in A major
An “impossible” piece, in that the long notes in the bass can hardly be heard at their full length of over two (12/8) bars—luckily not a reason to play faster than the moderate tempo given by the score. The fugue is beautiful, ethereal, mellow, heavenly-transcendental, once more with a harmonious build-up: to me, one of the highlights in the entire cycle!
8. Prelude & Fugue in F♯ minor
A humorous, both joking and moody prelude—followed by a very atmospheric fugue: initially, this felt like a lonely caller in the desert who is getting company from other voices. But the character is predominantly forlorn, somewhat sad, but with excellent, continuous build-ups. The piece is very long, but Levit manages to keep the tension, even after the final ritardando, when he lets the soft sound fade away for a long time.
9. Prelude & Fugue in E major
I didn’t check the artist’s feet, but I think this piece can only be properly articulated by using the middle pedal to hold the long notes, while both hands are needed to play in parallels two octave apart, creating a peculiar, glassy sound. The 2-voice fugue is far less exotic, seems closely modeled after Bach early, virtuosic fugue style. Maybe here, the tempo was at the upper limit, with a certain tendency to run away, towards the very abrupt ending.
10. Prelude & Fugue in C♯ minor
The prelude strongly reminds of Bach’s Prelude in E♭ major from WTC I, with ethereal flow—though with intermittent, solemn, chorale-like segments. In contrast, the 4-voice fugue is rather weighty, even though initially it sounds soft, innocent—without the dynamic build-ups, it could almost be by Bach!
11. Prelude & Fugue in B major
In the prelude, I found distinct, “speaking”, expressive agogics in Levit’s playing, avoiding all harshness. The fugue felt very fast (it is, though!), with focus on the narrating tone / expression rather than ultimate clarity and careful articulation. Enthralling, also to the pianist, obviously—up to the dramatic ending!
12. Prelude & Fugue in G♯ minor
When I compare this interpretation to others I know of this particularly well-known, if not famous prelude/fugue pair, the beginning sounded rather (too) soft (p in lieu of mf)—maybe too soft, too mellow and harmonious in general? Maybe that’s an instance where a stand-alone interpretation would typically differ from an “embedded” one? In contrast, the fugue was very marcato, and very fast, the playing was excellent. To me, though, it felt a little too much like a demonstration of virtuosity in the first half. The second part is much more introverted, ending even intimately, in ppp.
This was a chance for the first applause, leading into the intermission.
13. Prelude & Fugue in F♯ major
While keeping it almost entirely at p / pp level, Igor Levit played the F♯ major prelude with generous agogics in the melody line and its rich set of semiquaver melismas. As a composition, the 4-voice fugue feels like a lesson, an exemplary piece—but Levit presented it as harmonious, organic piece, full of expression and life. In the center, it briefly reaches f/ff, then it retracts again, ending in pp—and Levit formed it all into a single, big arch.
14. Prelude & Fugue in E♭ minor
With its sudden tremolo beginning, the very beginning appears menacing (almost like Schubert’s “Erlkönig” in Liszt’s transcription for piano). However, very soon, the tremoli retract into the “underground”, the atmosphere rather expresses forlornness, solitude. To me, it felt like a mix between “Le gibet” from “Gaspard de la nuit” by Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937) and a little bit of “Chanson de la folle au bord de la mer” from “Préludes“, op.31, by Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813 – 1888). Interesting music, for sure, and well-played! The fugue brings quite a contrast: initially pp, mellow, flowing, building up to several climaxes, f, mf, and finally ff, ultimately diminuendo into ppp, ann kept in a harmonious, organic flow.
15. Prelude & Fugue in D♭ major
The prelude brings quite a contrast again! Playful, if not lovely initially, then growing into almost boisterous, humorous fun, up to a ff outburst, returning to almost playful serenity, building up again, in waves, ending in another outburst. The fugue felt very fast, (too, almost?) virtuosic (occasionally with quite a lot of pedal?), but jazzy, enthralling—leading to the first and only spontaneous “scene applause”, which Levit quickly stopped using signs with his right hand: he did not want to disrupt his performance.
16. Prelude & Fugue in B♭ minor
What a contrast! A totally introverted prelude, lyrical, melancholic, longing. The piece begins and ends as a calm, solemn 4-voice polyphony, ultimately fading away into ppp near the bottom end of the keyboard. For the most part, one of the top voices is building up from a flowing quaver accompaniment (6/8, always legato) to quaver triplets (9/8) to a fast-flowing, slightly blurred semiquaver (12/16) line. In the end, the music was almost ethereal—certainly with enough sustain pedal! Under this, the other voices form an “infinite melody” as resting pole: very impressive! The heavily ornamented fugue starts very soft, like from far away, all ethereal, poetic, yet abstract, taken off into heavenly spheres. A cornerstone piece in Levit’s interpretation that warranted a half-minute break in silence!
One could see how much Igor Levit was living within this music, almost encapsulated in his personal sphere: occasionally, an unused hand moved away from the keyboard, directing the music with large, swaying gestures. This seemed entirely intuitive, almost subconscious—haven’t we seen this (in abundance and omnipresent, though) with Glenn Gould?
17. Prelude & Fugue in A♭ major
The prelude starts as an apparently simple children’s rhyme, vivid, playful—Levit manages to make this sound simple and easy! The fugue must be one of the most technically challenging pieces in the collection. Igor Levit’s playing was often soft, fluent—sometimes too fluent almost, with the semiquavers occasionally tending to run away, slightly blurring? Certainly an interpretation that needs to be viewed in the context of the entire cycle: a stand-alone interpretation wold almost certainly sound different.
18. Prelude & Fugue in F minor
Retained, calm polyphony in the prelude, with almost baroque ornamentation. The performance in the fugue was very good, with harmonious build-ups / long phrasing arches, also featuring excellent dynamic balance and disposition.
19. Prelude & Fugue in E♭ major
In Levit’s interpretation, this is one of the few pieces in the cycle that start with a grandiose gesture. The beginning remotely reminded me of “La Grand Porte de Kiev” from “Pictures at an exhibition” by Modest Mussorgsky (1839 – 1881), later also some of the bizarre absurdity of “Ballet des poussins dans leur coque” from the same cycle, but gradually walking away, preparing / giving way for the fugue. That fugue sounds really earnest, systematic—to me, almost a return of the harshness of the three “war sonatas” by Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953).
20. Prelude & Fugue in C minor
An entirely pensive prelude, initially reminding me of Aeolian harps, often at the softest possible level, full of tension, such that one would have heard a needle falling in the audience. Chorale-like segments go through short climaxes, but the piece ends ppp or below that. To me, this is the highlight of the entire cycle in terms in intimacy. The fugue has baroque attitude, in its serene atmosphere and clarity leading into heavenly spheres: also this a highlight of the evening in itself, going through a broad, grandiose climax.
21. Prelude & Fugue in B♭ major
The prelude is dominated by a constant, virtuosic semiquaver chain in the right hand, all legato, running very smoothly. Thereby, the left plays an accompaniment in stepping crotchets and quavers. It’s a rather light, musically unproblematic piece. The three-part fugue ha s a jumping theme, requiring careful, detailed articulation: agile, fast, vivid, joyful, seemingly carefree, until a build-up expands the music not just dynamically (up to ff in the end, but also in tonal range, with octave doubling in the left hand.
22. Prelude & Fugue in G minor
The prelude is interesting, repeated chords in crotchets are accompanied by pairs of quavers, whereby each pair starts with the second note of the previous pair—this makes the crotchet chords sound syncopated. Levit takes this through a broad, calm build-up, up to the fading-off in the final three bars: I liked this interpretation. The fugue fits the prelude, with broad build-ups at a measured pace. When a free hand moved in swaying gestures, seemingly illustrating the music, directing the other hand, one felt that Igor Levit was still—after so much music—fully inside the music, the performance, the interpretation.
23. Prelude & Fugue in F major
The prelude reminded me of a Bach chorale in a transcription / arrangement by Myra Hess )1890 – 1965) or Alexander Siloti (1863 – 1945), though of course harmonically reaching out much farther, as expected for Shostakovich, calm, pensive, starting afresh several times. The fugue, in contrast, is relatively carefree in its mood, joyful (though not necessarily easy to play, of course!).
24. Prelude & Fugue in D minor
The last prelude is one of the few pieces with starts great, f, tenuto, grandiose, even building up to ff greatness like an organ piece by Max Reger (1873 – 1916), but then retracting into a pp, while still feeling Maestoso. The long bass octaves are fading away, yet, one could still feel them.
The fugue, in contrast, begins pp, though Levit took this through almost theatrical, yet always calm, broad arches. The piece remains very calm and mostly pp, up to bar 111, where Shostakovich specifies accelerando poco a poco. It’s the ideal piece for Igor Levit! At that the point of gradual acceleration, Shostakovich introduces a second fugue theme (with a line of mostly paired quavers) that takes the piece through a very long, lasting climax, fff and Maestoso, the first theme joins in again. The cycle finishes with a really grandiose ending.
The one reservation I had here was that Levit’s Ritardandi on the last pages were too brad and too long (the composer specifies “rit.” tree times, just 2.5 bars each: 257 – 259, 279 – 281, and for the last bars, 294 – 296). However, for an ending after almost three hours of pure playing, I don’t want to be too critical about this.
Already in the concert on 2014-10-21, in his recital with Beethoven sonatas and Bach partitas, I found Igor Levit’s strength to be in the soft playing, the mellow articulation, the harmonious forming of phrases and build-ups. Also now, he started very carefully, retained, in case of doubt always deciding for soft dynamics, rather a level too soft (compared to what the score demands) than too loud. So, often, the dynamics ranged from pp to mf rather than Shostakovich’s p to f (as an example). Almost throughout, the articulation was rather mellow, avoiding clipping or harshness. He avoided strong contrasts in favor of organic, harmonious arches.
At all times, Levit maintained the musical flow. He never lost the tension, even when he did a soft ritardando for an ending. He captured humorous, as well as mourning or forlorn atmospheres, playful, as well as ethereal, transcendental moods. Where pieces (fugues, in particular) appear to be constructed with almost Bachian intellectual clarity and lucidity, Levit’s interpretation never sounded academic or ex cathedra. Throughout the evening, the dynamic balance was excellent. Levit also did not lose the focus on the relevant melody voice(s). But he is equally able to give heavier, greater pieces or sections the appropriate weight (e.g., the fugue in C♯ minor), though he avoids thundering, exaggerated boldness.
Sure, not everything can possibly be perfect in such a long recital of over three hours (including the intermission). But (minor) critical remarks such as the occasional excess of sustain pedal, or the excessively broad, final ending, all seem irrelevant, considering the overall, remarkable, amazing achievement of this recital: the standing ovation was definitely more than justified!
For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack.com. I created 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