The genteel Wigmore Hall audience was startled by the abrupt slamming of the lid of the piano, heralding the start of a brand new work by a composer celebrating a significant birthday on the day of the concert. The pianist was Igor Levit, always very popular with Wigmore audiences, and the composer was Frederic Rzewski. As a student Levit was captivated by Rzewski’s music and asked the composer to write a new piece. The work premiered at this concert was commissioned by Wigmore Hall for Levit to play.

Igor Levit © Gregor Hohenberg
Igor Levit
© Gregor Hohenberg

Of course, being a new work no one quite knew what to expect (and the programme notes offered little in the way of a preview), though those familiar with Rzewski’s work would have an inkling. Entitled Ages, the work was described by the composer in the programme as “something to do with the theme of ageing” and the sense of “epochs, or periods, of history: stone, ice, digital, and so on”. 

Mahlerian in breadth (and it was no accident that Mahler featured in the second half), granitic and monumental, this rhapsodic work lasted an hour, and one can only admire Levit’s concentration and skill in holding its varied elements together for so long. In addition to notes on the piano, there were whistles and wails, knocking and tapping on the instrument’s case, bird calls and squawks, and even a child’s “Moo cow canister”. From that opening slap, the music retreated into ethereal sustained chords, high in the register, heard as if from an outer firmament, before something much bigger took hold: melodic fragments (the work quotes Purcell’s Music for a while, but there are also brief references to The Well-Tempered Clavier and The Rite of Spring), agitated runs, fists of notes, chord clusters, resonant repetitions and erratic rhythmic motifs. It was a tour de force, as much for the audience as the pianist, gripping and intense. Did I like it? No, not especially (I thought it was too long and at times rather self-conscious), but I fully applauded Levit’s skill and authority in tackling a work written by a composer who clearly appreciates Levit’s pianism and his ability to create intensely focused atmosphere and musical drama.

While the length of the work clearly troubled some audience members, as a friend of mine who also attended the concert commented, “there is something to be said for listening to a world premiere of that length”. Often “difficult” new music is presented in shorter chunks, relieved by familiar or less complex repertoire. Hearing a brand new work without any expectation of what was to come, and shared with the rest of the audience, was an interesting and unusual concert experience in its own right.

In fact, the Rzewski made more sense as soon as Levit embarked on the Adagio from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, in a transcription for piano by Ronald Stevenson (dedicated to Joan Humphreys, wife of the pianist John Humphreys, who was in the audience for the performance). According to Levit’s note on the choice of repertoire, Rzewski considers Mahler “incredible”, and the piece matched the new work in scale and breadth. 

In his transcription, Stevenson did not attempt to replicate orchestral sound colour or textures, but rather relied on the simple poignancy of the opening cantilena and Mahler’s radical harmonies, revealed more strikingly when performed by one solo musician. Levit caught the work’s scale adeptly, maintaining the work’s atmosphere and gathering drama over long lyrical lines and slow-moving chord progressions. In this solo version, the composer’s yearning and despair felt even more direct, his final, whispered statements subtly, exquisitely, voiced by Levit.

Between these two edifices, three Songs Without Words by Mendelssohn, a composer also admired by Rzewski, played by Levit with supple phrasing, relaxed rubato, and elegantly intimate singing lines.