In the ever-expanding world of Igor Levit, curiosity is very much the watchword. Constantly seeking new directions, especially in his solo and chamber recitals, there was always going to be an interesting angle in this programme, something different for the audience to chew on. But this was not a one-man show. Levit was joined by German pianist Markus Becker, sharing jointly their personal sense of wonder at the music they were rediscovering, first in major works from Beethoven and Brahms in their less familiar versions – one of which worked very well, the other slightly less so – and then, with percussionists Klaus Reda and Andreas Boettger, powerfully exposing one of Bartók’s finest pieces, curiously still not quite getting the recognition it deserves.

Igor Legit © Robbie Lawrence
Igor Legit
© Robbie Lawrence

Things started with an attention-grabbing tremolando played by both pianists on one piano. This was the opening of Beethoven’s own arrangement for piano (four hands) of his monumental Grosse Fuge, originally written for string quartet. From the outset, Levit and Becker showed the value of teamwork and deep musical understanding, particularly with the obvious physical challenges of two pianists playing such a complex work on one instrument. Their playing was intense and purposeful, the performance an exercise in concrete force versus delicacy. But I do struggle with this format – sorry Beethoven, but I find the intricate lines within the dense textures, particularly in the first double fugue, much better suited to the timbres of the string quartet and more clearly revealed. That said, it is still a masterpiece, and the performance was impressive, very carefully examined and testing the players’ resilience to the max, and with much more success in the quieter middle section, revealing a sublime sense of spirituality.

The Brahms that followed fared better, with a rare performance of his original setting for two pianos of the highly successful Variations on a Theme of Haydn (St Anthony Variations), much better known in its orchestral arrangement. Levit and Becker exuded musicality and warmth, with wonderful dovetailing and balance, matching each other’s moods and showing restraint when required while feeling free to flow over when the music dictated. The phrasing was impeccable, managing also to find some inner soul in the Andante of Variation 4 before moving to more vibrant episodes, always precise and forceful, and closing the piece in majestic fashion. While the orchestral version is much more well-known, it is this sort of performance of the original – free-flowing, expansive and punchy – that could actually make a few converts.

All hell was let loose in the second half. Bartók’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion is an immense work, not epic in duration but cram-packed full of musical content and exploring the piano’s more percussive qualities. Percussionists Reda and Boettger were spectacular in their precision and subtlety, with all four players trading handoffs expertly and showing extreme virtuosity, creating precise counterpoint one moment and evoking different moods and textures the next. The first movement was mysterious and thrilling, alternating between furious dynamism and delicate mutterings. The ‘night music’ of the second movement had Levit and Becker’s desolate piano melodies, rippling clusters and glissandos emerging out of evocative untuned percussion utterances to remarkable effect, as the perky Finale, with its dark undercurrent, had the xylophone taking pride of place before the piece closed with fading cymbal and side drum disappearing enigmatically into thin air. A stunning performance.

****1