Deep into Igor Levit’s monumental Birmingham Town Hall performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s vast cycle of Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues, I wondered if this work was some kind of Everest for pianists. It’s rare to meet it complete, in concert. The careful, transparent counterpoint places exacting demands on its interpreters and although it’s never flashy, there are devilishly difficult corners. Success here depends upon unwavering concentration from musician and listener alike. If you fell, there’d be no soft landing, and certainly nowhere to hide. But the mountain analogy only gets you so far. This isn’t music of lofty vistas, of high-wire daring or summit-triumph. Shostakovich’s immaculate miniatures are spare, interior, and their rewards quiet and very personal. When Levit reached the final page of the last, defiant fugue – the effort and intensity registering on his face and his hands pounding out its final unisons – it was clear that this was a long, lonely and intensely moving pilgrimage to some of the subtlest landscapes the piano can paint.

Igor Levit © Robbie Lawrence
Igor Levit
© Robbie Lawrence

The cycle – here lasting close to three hours – followed the composer’s 1950 visit to Leipzig, which included jury service at a Bach competition. Shostakovich must still have been smarting from the vicious censure meted out by the authorities in the 1948 campaign against “formalism” in music – a vague, catch-all criticism of art that failed to glorify the Soviet “reality”. The composer, though, remained a shining enough light of Soviet culture to warrant his deployment abroad as a propaganda tool, though the trip to Leipzig happily allowed him to hear Russian pianist Tatyana Nikolayeva in a selection of Bach’s music. His interest was piqued, and he set about writing music in the vein of Bach’s own preludes and fugues, collected as The Well-Tempered Clavier.

Shostakovich ploughed through the 24 available keys, dashing off preludes and fugues over the winter of 1950/51. He did so without apparent concern for the potential reaction to writing music in the most rigidly structured form imaginable – with its strict rules and highly technical language, the fugue’s complex layering of theme upon theme was surely the greatest target imaginable for the charge of formalism. He was devastated by the wildly negative response the work received at its first performance. Nerves affected his playing that day – this is, even when immaculately played, a taxing listen, and it must have seemed much more difficult to comprehend with added wrong notes.

Sixty-five year later, the cycle is a relative rarity, but boasts more fine exponents than ever before. That said, it’s very hard to imagine a better case being made than what Igor Levit managed here. The quality of what was about to unfold was clear from the first notes of the first prelude, the unassuming C Major opening that recalls the famous start of Bach’s cycle without aping its style. That first prelude also signals a lot about what follows musically. Gone is a lot of the pungent colour of Shostakovich’s signature sound of the 1920s and 30s (heard, say, in the Twenty-Four Preludes of 1932/3), supplanted instead by Bachian seriousness and Mozartian clarity of keyboard writing. It’s no mere imitation, though. Any sense of that is brushed aside by Shostakovich’s distinctive turn of harmony, breezing in so often like a chill wind on a sunny day that brings news of autumn.

Those opening, chiming chords emerged from Levit’s lidless Steinway – positioned here in the centre of the wonderfully-restored Town Hall – with a glow lent in equal parts by the hall’s wonderful acoustic and Levit’s own supreme delicacy of touch. I can’t recall a more satisfying live piano sound. Every detail was observed with immaculate poise; every fugue voice traced with care and distinction. Levit changed tack in a heartbeat – the touch needed for the broken, gently pedalled strumming chords of the G Major Prelude gave way to the pointed exactness of the following fugue instantly. The transition to the second fugue theme from the one in E minor was turned with the sense you get in Chopin, of the emotional state hinging on the progress of two or three notes. Touch impressed again and again: an impossibly quiet lower voice in the G sharp minor Prelude contrasting with the jostling, hectoring stamp of the argumentative E flat minor Fugue.

More broadly, as well, Levit made a strong sense of the disparate form of the cycle. Accounts differ as to whether Shostakovich intended it to be heard as a whole or in smaller parts, but careful management of contrast is needed to keep the audience on board. Levit worked hard on this, so much so that a laugh escaped his lips when a door banged by an early leaver crashed across his finely crafted transition between pieces. The first half of the set emerged as more varied in tone and character than I’d really considered before, and any lack of overall shape in the second half had more to do with a sense of views we’d already seen in some of the fugues than any failing on the pianist’s part. The only issue came in the fastest fugues, which Levit tended to barrel through at the expense of clarity and stability – exciting, but to the detriment of details, such as the call-back to elements of the D flat Major Prelude in the proceeding, hectic fugue.

Scintillating details abounded. The trembling octaves of the E flat minor Prelude ring on in the mind, as do the Mussorgsky-like chords that interrupt them. Or the B flat minor Fugue, surely one of the most remarkable fugues ever composed. It floats free of pulse; for its duration, we were adrift with Levit in timeless space. Heaven knowns what Shostakovich thought the composer’s union were going to make of that one. When the final thundering notes of the last fugue had faded, the audience rose. We were all exhausted. Levit’s performance was a mighty achievement, a rare concert expedition into a perfectly modulated interior world.