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RECORDING OF THE MONTH
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Life Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Fantasia after J. S. Bach BV 253 [14:31] Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)/Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Chaconne from Partita No. 2 in transcription for left hand alone [13:48] Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Variations in E-Flat Major on an Original Theme ‘Ghost Variations’ [11:26] Frederic RZEWSKI (b. 1938)
A Mensch No. 3 from Dreams Part 1 [10:07] Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)/Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Solemn March to the Holy Grail from Parsifal S450 [11:17] Franz LISZT/Ferruccio BUSONI
Fantasia and Fugue on the Chorale Ad Nos, ad salutarem undam [33:26] Richard WAGNER/Franz LISZT
Isoldens Liebestod S447 [7:47] Ferruccio BUSONI
Berceuse No. 7 from Elegies BV 249 [5:15] Bill EVANS (1929-1980)
Peace Piece [6:06]
Igor Levit (piano)
rec. Berlin-Dahlem, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, 2018 SONY 88985424452 [2 CDs: 114:43]
This album is a tribute to Igor Levit’s close friend, Hannes Malte Mahler, who died in a bike accident in 2016. The recital is a meditation on life and death and the protean nature of art. Many of the works are transcriptions. The towering shadows of Busoni and Liszt loom large. The secular and the sacred meld together in an uneasy cocktail, and the recital offers no easy answers to questions about grief and loss.
The recital opens with Busoni’s Fantasia after J. S. Bach written after the death of the composer’s parents and in memory of his father. It embeds a number of Bach’s chorales in a free-wheeling funeral Fantasia. Levit opens with dark, murky sonorities from the bottom the keyboard, and the playing gradually becomes more expansive. There is a freedom and naturalness about the performance, which allows the listener to move seamlessly from one Bachian chorale to another. Each of the contrapuntal episodes is beautifully characterised. Levit injects different colours into each, and summons organ sonorities from his Steinway. The work subsides and ends on a note of resignation, although the final change to the minor key brings a note of disquiet.
Brahms was in awe of Bach’s monumental D Minor Violin Chaconne. He wrote: “On a single staff for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings”. He transcribed the work almost note for note for piano left hand alone. Levit’s performance of this work is as monumental as Michelangeli’s performance of the Busoni transcription for two hands. He brings weight, depth of tone and a subtle flexibility to the line. The Chaconne rhythms propel the work, the textures and colours evolve organically, and the dramatic tension never flags. This performance is the best I have heard, superior to those by Zimerman and Trifonov.
Schumann’s Ghost Variations were written immediately before the composer’s ill-fated suicide attempt and his incarceration in a lunatic asylum. Levit brings a nobility to the opening theme, and the very painful feelings in this music are never allowed to become sentimental. The final variation is profoundly moving: Levit contrasts the frailty of the opening theme with the increasingly disturbing accompaniment which threatens to overwhelm it. This work has not been performed as much as other piano works by Schumann, so this performance by Levit certainly sets a high benchmark and is every bit as good as those by Schiff and Anderszewski.
The centrepiece of this recital is Busoni’s transcription of Liszt’s Fantasia and Fugue on ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam’. Liszt’s original organ work is based on a chorale from Meyerbeer’s opera La Prophéte. Busoni’s transcription for piano is one of the most technically demanding works ever written for piano, rarely performed nowadays. Levit’s performance is one of the most incendiary virtuoso displays I have ever heard. He does a wonderful job whipping up Liszt’s fiendish material in the opening movement. However, the virtuoso elements are never an end in themselves. One is always aware of a probing mind shaping the material and producing rich evolving textures and colours. In the central slow movement time seems to stand still as Levit communes with the celestial spheres. The final fugue is volcanic. One is swept away on the torrents of notes as Levit shows us his jaw-droppingly brilliant finger work. This performance by Levit has well and truly put this piece on the map, but I very much doubt if anyone else will be able to play it as well as this.
Like Busoni, Liszt was also a prolific transcriber, and he showed the orchestral capabilities of the piano with his Wagner transcriptions. The first of these to feature on this album is the Solemn March to the Holy Grail from Parsifal. Levit creates a wonderful feeling of space in his performance; the repetitive rhythmic insistence of the piece has a hypnotic feel. The other Wagner transcription is the perennially popular Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde. Levit brings an extraordinary degree of clarity to this work. One is truck by the strange beauty of the chromatic inner voices. He fuses the erotic and the spiritual into a heady cocktail, and creates a feeling of transcendence.
It seems that no Igor Levit recital would be complete without a work by Rzewski, and here he offers A Mensch from the composer’s Dreams Part 1. The word Mensch is derived from Yiddish and means a person of high integrity and honour. Rzewski wrote the work in memory of a friend of his who died, so it fits perfectly with the theme of this recording. Levit’s performance almost creates a microcosm of life, and has a solipsistic Freudian feel. Busoni’s Berceuse uses bitonality and instructs the performer to use both pedals. Levit’s performance creates a soothing of the waters, although unresolved feelings lurk in the depths.
The final work in the recital, Bill Evans’s Peace Piece, receives a glowing performance here, ending the recital on a note of peace and calm.
This is one of the most outstanding piano recitals I have ever heard. Levit has a probing and highly original musical mind which he combines with the most breathtaking virtuosity. Amazing stuff!