Of today’s interpreters of Liszt, Igor Levit is one of the greats. An artist dedicated to a wholesome re-evaluation of the composer’s works, his performances are invariably a supreme mix of sincerity and explosiveness. His latest Symphony Hall programme, intelligently assembled, saw Bach, Busoni and Brahms alongside Schumann with an entire second half dedicated to the 19th-century Hungarian ‘wonder-boy’.

Igor Levit © Robbie Lawrence
Igor Levit
© Robbie Lawrence

For those whose raison d'être is to devour exquisite pianistic talent tonight’s recital by the Russian-German pianist was to be a welcome banquet. Levit’s piano playing was, as it so often is, characterised by warm resonance, the absence of melodrama and a telling but understated way with the pedal. As such, we were not only conscious of the beauty of the whole composition but also of each note.

Johannes Brahms’ left-hand arrangement of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor was eloquent and touching; the audience held in one hand at the mercy of the beauty of the piece. Levit’s abilities favoured this rarely-heard transcription. Levit carried Bach's original violin part to the modern grand piano with superb accuracy, and his faithfulness to the melody and rhythm cradled the Baroque charm of the piece.

Levit’s almost overwhelming emotional performance of Ferruccio Busoni’s rich Fantasia after JS Bach, BWV 253, was a masterpiece in itself. The work’s improvisatory introduction gives way to the sort of unexpected chromatic melodies for which Busoni’s compositions are renowned. From here we are led through a work of such free romantic transcription as to be original and independent in its own right.

For a performer to interpret Busoni’s music in this way requires a great deal of understanding of the composer’s intentions both technically and emotionally. Levit committed to these terms with ample confidence and carefully avoided the pitfalls of over-performance and snubbed texture.

Levit’s attention to the textures and rhythm of Robert Schumann’s Ghost Variations was evidently well-informed. The piece has at its heart the broken wit and abrasive sensibilities of the mature composer (it was to be his last work for piano) and the piece was delivered with a style and sympathy utterly in keeping with the timing of its composition. There was much to discover here, more subtle elixir for the soul, as well as Levit’s supreme virtuosic ministrations.

The second half began with Liszt’s Solemn March to the Holy Grail. Extracted from Franz Liszt’s Complete Piano Transcriptions of Wagner’s Operas, the march is based mainly on the rousing theme of the Holy Grail March from the end of Act 1 of the Parsifal. Levit freshly imagined this piece and, while remaining true to its essence, enthralled with both a volatility and calmness so characteristic of Wagner’s later works.

The concert finished with Busoni’s arrangement of Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue on Ad nos, ad salutarem undam: a bold and stylish performance of a piece which often suffers from over-complication. Levit’s sound was measured, the climaxes tremendous and his technique faultless. A little more tonal delicacy might have been appropriate in some quarters but the performance was in all other respects perfection. Igor Levit yet again lives up to his billing as the ‘future of piano and the player of the century’.

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