It’s hard to imagine a more convincing interpretation of Shostakovich’s monumental and unique exercise in Bachian neoclassicism. Igor Levit has shown the world that he has a pedigree in these 24 Prelude and Fugues, Op.87, both in live performances and on a much-praised recording. The amount of sheer concentration required from the pianist in delivering the varied textures, moods and technical challenges presented by these pieces over nearly two and a half hours, is superhuman. Levit lived up to the challenges in this Wigmore Hall recital with his usual intensity and good humour.

Igor Levit
© Felix Broede

Nevertheless, for the listener, digesting all 24 works in one sitting is an equal challenge, despite the most dedicated advocacy. It is quite a rare occurrence to hear the set performed in a single evening and even rarer to hear any of them given an outing separately, with the exception of the angelic D major. Many of the them are designed to be performed in sequence with the other works and when you take them out of context, they struggle to make their mark. As the set moves along to the flat keys, some of the fugues lack the thematic inspiration and variety of the earlier sharp key pieces. One has the sense that even the massively talented Shostakovich was reaching the end of his musical imagination. 

However, it still remains a huge achievement, on a par with Messiaen’ s masterpiece, Vingt Regards sur l'enfant-Jésus, as the two high points in mid-20th-century piano music. Levit demonstrated mastery of every facet of the score. A sweet composure, which is rare elsewhere in the composer’s output, as in the C major, sat very easily under his fingers. The lively spikiness familiar from Shostakovich's symphonic Scherzos, as in the D flat major Fugue, achieved a crispness, rhythmic precision and lightness of spirit, with Levit never overdoing the high spirits. The extreme introspection of the B flat minor Fugue with its melismatic theme was the most perfect example of a controlled pianissimo, like whiffs smoke drifting on a windless summer night. The Mendelssohnian will-o'-the-wisp A minor Prelude led into an equally fleet-footed Fugue, captured without affectation. 

It was very hard to find fault with any of Levit’s presentation of the score, in this very well attended performance. Maybe one could have looked for a little more emphasis on the darker aspects of the score or some risk-taking in the more virtuosic moments, but overall, this was a first rate musical achievement. When it came to the final dramatic, most symphonically written Fugue in D minor, Levit was finally able to pull out all the stops. After so much subtly and carefully judged colouration, the concluding minutes of music were enveloped by a grand peroration, which sounded both grand and somehow empty, surely as the composer had intended.