Invited to perform for the first time on Carnegie Hall’s main stage, Igor Levit started the evening with a wondrously shaped version of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 30 in E major, Op.109. As expected, his interpretation of an opus he has recently performed quite often was imbued with novel valences. Beyond an immaculate technique or a sound of great beauty, the pianist constantly sought combinations of sounds and textures that would shock listeners out of complacency. Between the lyrical opening and the serene ending there were moments of exaggerated impetuousness and otherworldly quietness. Accents were occasionally shifted. The tension in the last variation, just before the return of the theme, was almost unbearable.

Igor Levit
© Steve Pisano for Bachtrack

Levit attacked next a set of vignettes – Variations on a Folksonga world premiere written for him by Fred Hersch. The pianist has repeatedly and successfully played some smaller pieces by Hersch as encores, but not even his tender and loving rendition of this more substantial new opus could fully sustain the public’s interest. The “twenty variations in a wide variety of approaches that play off both the melody and the harmony”, as the composer describes them, float pleasantly between jazz and classical idioms, but the treatment of the original O Shenandoah tune – refined, serene and full of nostalgia – is occasionally monotonous. Mainly due to his daily Twitter Hauskonzerte last year, Levit is at a point in his career where he is a true trendsetter. Listeners will follow him wherever he takes them. Only time will tell if these novel destinations stay on the map.

The second part of the evening – including the carefully selected encore, Isolde’s Liebestod, in Liszt's transcription – was a huge double arch, stemming from and ending in silence. The Prelude from Tristan und Isolde was performed here as arranged by the late Zoltán Kocsis. Receiving its Carnegie Hall premiere, it is one of several reductions he attempted, all faithfully and subtly capturing the spirit of the original orchestral work. Reiterating the shock of the initial bars, the pianist played every turn of phrase with his characteristic mixture of impetuosity and inwardness, sporadically using the pedal a tad too much. Levit is a musician always aware of the importance of pauses as half of a yin-yang balance in any musical performance, and there were beautiful examples in this very recital. Nonetheless, he took the debatable decision to eliminate any break between Wagner’s Vorspiel and Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor, as if wanting to underline the commonalities between two works conceived practically at the same time. The last two chords (quasi pizzicato) in the former were thus immediately followed by a similar pair (sotto voce) in the latter.

Igor Levit
© Steve Pisano for Bachtrack

Levit’s apparent idiosyncrasies, in terms of selected repertoire or individual interpretative choices, are the prerogatives of an of an artist blessed with a formidable spirit of introspection. In this respect, the impression of spontaneity given by his rendition of Liszt’s sonata was probably anchored by conscious decisions. The pianist didn’t care for any display of devilish virtuosity or overt Romanticism. Instead, he deconstructed this magnum opus into components, drawing attention to certain rhythmic patterns, the fugato or special timbral colorings. At the same time, he underlined the remarkable combination of flexibility and unity achieved via thematic transformations in this sonata within a sonata. 

Isolde's Liebestod, the concluding encore, was performed with great sensibility and without any trace of grandiloquence or empty brilliance – an argument, as was the entire recital, for the transcendental power of music.

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