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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
10 Chorale Preludes BV B 27 (arr. Busoni) [33:54]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
6 Chorale Preludes BV B 50 (arr. Busoni) [15:24]
Vier ernste Gesänge (arr. Reger) [18:00]
Max REGER (1873-1916)
Nachtlied Op. 138/3 (arr. Julian Becker, 2005) [03:06]
Morton FELDMAN (1926-1987)
Palais de Mari [28:46]
Igor Levit (piano)
rec. 2020, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin
SONY 19439786572 [49:17 + 50:01]

I received Igor Levit’s recent release for review just as the Russian-German pianist clinched the Instrumental Award for his Sony Classical recording of Beethoven’s Complete Piano Sonatas, and was named Gramophone's 2020 Artist of the Year. ‘Encounters’, the title of this latest recording, has come about through extraordinary circumstances. Like many musicians during this pandemic, Levit decided to communicate with his public by performing within the confines and comfort of his own home. The result was a series of 50 ‘Hauskonzerts’. One benefit of these was the audience online feedback. In response to this he’s put together a recital featuring Bach and Brahms in transcriptions by Busoni. In addition, there are transcriptions of Brahms' Vier ernste Gesänge by Max Reger, a recent arrangement of Reger’s Nachtlied by Julian Becker and, to end, Morton Feldman’s Palais de Mari. It’s a programme which, hopefully, will provide inner strength and emotional support during these extremely challenging times. In Levit’s own words, the music deals “with the basic questions of love and death, of loneliness and the possibility of truly loving one’s neighbour….”.

I’m pleased that Levit has recorded all ten of Bach’s Chorale Preludes in Busoni’s captivating arrangements. It was Busoni’s intention when transcribing these works, not merely to make literal transcriptions, but to ‘recreate’ them, whilst retaining the true substance of the music. Levit coaxes some lovely sonorities from the piano, presenting each prelude with an array of colour. Lines are exquisitely delineated, through sensitive pedaling. Komm, Gott Schöpfer, Heiliger Geist provides the perfect curtain raiser, strutting out with confidence, both triumphant and extrovert. Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme and Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ are enveloped in warmth and intimacy and, in the former, the middle-voice chorale emerges with crystalline clarity. In dir ist Freude is self-assured and full-blooded.

At the end of his life in 1896, Brahms composed Eleven Chorale Preludes, Op.122, which were published posthumously in 1902. In the wake of Clara Schumann’s death and burial, he performed them to a group of friends. Busoni arranged six of them for piano, publishing them in 1897, the year of Brahms’ death. They are rarely performed, so to hear them as a complete group is a bonus. Levit approaches them reverentially, placing emphasis on their intimate and introspective nature. Es ist ein Ros entsprungen concerns itself with the birth of the Saviour. Some focus on death, and the wonderful O Welt ich muss dich lassen looks forward to heavenly rewards which come when mortal life ceases. His Vier Ernste Gesänge. (Four Serious Songs) Op.121 also date from 1896, and Max Reger's rarely heard transcriptions were made in 1912. They fit well into the mood of this recital. Their autumnal flavour fully encapsulates the mood of the world at this present time.

Reminiscent of chorales by Bach, Reger’s homophonic Nachtlied, here arranged by Julian Becker, exudes a devotional calm and sense of resignation and acceptance. It puts the listener in the right frame of mind for Morton Feldman’s hypnotic 29 minute opus from 1986, Palais de Mari. For the pianist, it’s an exercise in pianissimo, described in the booklet as “the vanishing point of a recital programme whose trajectory traces a kind of extended diminuendo: a slow retreat from the external to the internal”.

Stephen Greenbank

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