The wonderful acoustics of Milton Court proved to be the ideal setting for dramatic performances of rare repertoire. With Igor Levit at the helm the evening was both technically challenging and artistically stimulating for audience and performers alike.

Igor Levit © Robbie Lawrence
Igor Levit
© Robbie Lawrence

Messiaen’s wartime two-piano masterpiece, Visions de l’Amenis one of those pivotal works that seems to define the whole of the composer’s oeuvre. Through the ever-present prism of his Catholic religion, the composer explores a wide range of human moods and emotions including love, physical longing, violence, ecstasy and defiance in this glittering seven-movement piece. With Levit on the Piano 1 part, written for the composer’s pupil/muse and future wife Yvonne Loriod, and Markus Hinterhäuser on the Piano 2 part, written for the composer himself to perform, the full treasure-trove of musical ideas was revealed in all its intoxicating glory.

The danger in performances of this work is that the fortissimo passages can sound hard, unyielding and relentless, but here the dynamics were strictly controlled and graded, so that by the final movements sustained eruption there was still enough dramatic petrol in the tank. Levit and Hinterhäuser also achieved an effortless realisation of the rhythmic freedom that seems to defy bar lines in the quieter passages. The characterisation of the two piano parts, with the solid melodic and harmonics foundations laid by Piano 2 and the freer fantastical passagework from Piano 1, decorative and disruptive by turns, has rarely been so well achieved.

Igor Levit was joined by a small ensemble of violin, cello, and four percussionists, in a performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 15 in A major in an arrangement, approved by the composer, by Mark Pekarsky and Viktor Devevianko which was performed in advance of the full version in 1972. With its chamber like textures, this ghostly death infused late work lends itself very well to the smaller band. The brittle humour of the opening Allegretto seemed here to inhabit the hinterland of lightness, its cheeky quote from Rossini’s William Tell a lame attempt at wit. With all the textures laid bare, the true rawness of emotion became visible, reminding one here of the Nielsen’s late Sixth Symphony.

It was in the slow movement that the drawbacks of a small group were most obvious. The keening sparseness of much of the writing should be contrasted with the overwhelming massiveness of the climax, but was not achievable with these forces. The Scherzo, however, with its limpid strange dance, came off well. The complex Finale with its great central passacaglia based on the famous theme from the composers Leningrad Symphony and the skeletal rattlings of the percussion at the end, seemed to lose nothing in translation.

Very committed playing from both string players, Ning Feng on violin and Julia Hagen on cello held the ensemble together, with Levit generously unshowy. The four percussionists remained central to the whole performance, as they do in the full orchestral version, lifting the music into an otherworldly plane imagined by a man facing his own death head on.

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