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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
24 Preludes and Fugues Op.87 (1951) [146:26]
Ronald STEVENSON (1928-2015)
Passacaglia on DSCH (1962) [86:15]
Igor Levit (piano)
rec. May 2020, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin (Shostakovich); February 2020, HCC, Leibniz Saal, Hanover
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview. Also available on CD and vinyl
SONY 19439809212 [3 CDs: 232:41]  

Igor Levit’s peculiar and unique combination of the Germanic and Russian traditions of piano playing makes him the ideal interpreter for both of these giant peculiar and unique compositions. Some of his piano playing here is technically terrifying yet there is almost nothing that draws attention to the performer for his own sake. Levit is a match for any of the mighty Russian pianists of the past yet his sensibility is tempered by a very German approach to the structure and craft of the music before all else. That said, I would imagine that even Schnabel might have baulked at a programme this severe! But Levit is not a particularly severe guide. He finds magic in every note that holds the listener spellbound as these mighty journeys unfold. Such is the intensity of care and love that the whole 3 hours plus of this recording feels like a single programme. The two works fit together perfectly. It is just that very few pianists have what it takes to pull it off. And probably even fewer crazy enough to try!

What we have in the Shostakovich preludes and fugues is the sound of a man saving his soul. His musical soul at any rate. By withdrawing into a kind of internal exile, away from the public demands upon his music, Shostakovich defiantly asserts his own creativity and its right to go where it wants and not where the Stalinist regime required it to go. What we are eavesdropping on might be thought of as the composer Shostakovich might have been, and certainly this set can be seen as opening the way to the remarkable sequence of late string quartets which, even more than the symphonies, were his crowning glory.

As a result, what we get is all sorts of versions of the composer. Some of these are very familiar: the sardonic Chaplinesque clown; the lamenter of the misery of life; the deliverer of terrifying and grandiose visions. All of these are here but many others too. Shostakovich the pastoralist is unexpected, as is Shostakovich the wide eyed innocent. There is even unbuttoned silliness in the prelude to No.21. More than anything else we get a sense of the private man, the husband, friend and father. Despite the conditions which produced it, this is, perhaps defiantly, not a neurotic outpouring. It is most definitely an outpouring as though all the music that had to be stifled during the dark years of the Terror came flooding out.

The interpreter of this towering masterpiece needs to be responsive to this almost Shakespearean breadth. Each pairing of prelude and fugue must breathe its own air. Levit is hyper sensitive to this and his phenomenal command of tonal colour gives him resources few of his rivals, even the mighty Nikolayeva, can draw on. Sometimes it is almost as if he changes to a different instrument from one prelude and fugue to the next: wistful and opalescent in the fugue of No.7 and then brittle and dry as tinder in No.8’s prelude. Yet Levit’s ferocious intelligence holds the whole thing together, building to a shattering account of the final fugue which is truly gut wrenching in its baleful progress. It sounds like a J’accuse against the whole regime which had driven the composer underground, all the more powerful for the patient way Shostakovich ratchets up the tension. Levit is imperious here. The chords have a frightening weight and resonance that never becomes an ugly sound, even at deafening volume.

Levit is, of course, one of the great Bach pianists and, as for example in the prelude to No.10, he is sensitive to the resonances of the German composer in a piece inspired by a performance of the 48 in Leipzig. Shostakovich is honouring a tradition, not seeking to shatter it. Given the charges of formalism that were being levelled at him at the time, this is another quietly radical element of this extraordinary music.

Elsewhere, for example in the next prelude and fugue, No.11, the wunderkind of the first piano concerto is alive and well, despite all he has been through. Levit’s fingers seem to have wings here and I can only hope he can be persuaded to do something as relatively conventional as record the two piano concertos.

At other points, the music seems almost without precedent, as in the hair-raising E flat minor prelude (No.14) or the Orthodox chant and bells of the G major prelude (No.3). Levit terraces the dynamics in this latter prelude to present a multi-layered soundscape that connects Shostakovich with an older Russia that was to become increasingly important to him in the last phase of his career. As for what planet the lovely prelude No.5 in D major was beamed down from, I have no idea. It is clear from his refinement and poise in playing it and the kittenish fugue that follows it that Levit speaks its language fluently.

Alongside this broad range of styles and moods, the set contains many deeply confessional reflections and Levit has the emotional as well as the technical range to respond. The magnificent B minor Fugue (No.6) is electrifying in Levit’s hands. This is a much more familiar Shostakovich, closer to the symphonies and concertos, but somehow the impact is increased by a context of such diversity. This is a very fine example of Levit’s ability to mutter and groan and whisper as well as to howl and roar.

This review would reach tedious length if I were to try and itemise every felicity of Levit’s performance. On the other hand, listing its weaknesses would be brief indeed, as there are none that I can perceive. The obvious comparison is with the now legendary 1981 version by the piece’s dedicatee and inspiration Tatiana Nikolayeva on Hyperion (CDA66441/3). This remains the benchmark and Nikolayeva’s unflinching spirit and indefatigable intelligence bring unique insights. But her approach is much more severe than Levit’s and the new recording shows us a different way with this masterpiece. Nikolayeva gives us a much more familiar picture of Shostakovich where Levit finds greater light and shade; his Shostakovich even smiles and not just in a sarcastic grimace. Nikolayeva’s humour is flatter and more caustic. The two sets complement each beautifully, yet I imagine Levit’s will win over more listeners new to the music. Ideally, I would say any listener needs to hear both but if pushed to choose just one, it would be Levit.

The Stevenson could have been written for Levit, the composer’s own recordings notwithstanding. He just seems to have something extra in terms of intensity, timbre, poetry and just plain fury that sets him above all rivals. Like a great Bruckner conductor, his pacing of this enormous canvas is faultless.

It is to be hoped that the advocacy of a superstar pianist like Levit can finally move Stevenson’s homage to the older Soviet composer out of its current niche status into the mainstream. This is not a curio but a masterpiece more than equal to the Shostakovich preludes and fugues. It is based on the musical transcription of Shostakovich’s initials, DSCH, into the notes D, E flat, C and B and they are used as the basis for a cornucopia of variations, fugues and just about every way of making music at a piano including playing directly on the piano strings with one hand.

There is a parallel in Levit’s conception of the work with his approach to the Shostakovich. Despite the huge amount of musical terrain he has to cover, or perhaps because of it, Levit is in no hurry. He makes no apology for the great length of either work and every note gets its due. Both works, in other hands, have a tendency to sound a little grey as though, particularly in the Stevenson, pianists are too busy getting their hands and heads round the notes for anything as frivolous as colour. As an intellectual feat, Levit’s care and precision with the voicing of every chord (and there a lot of them) is staggering. As a listening experience, it means that nothing is average or taken for granted but jumps vividly to life.

There is something absolutely obsessive about this music, as indeed there is in the passacaglias and chaconnes of Bach, Shostakovich and Britten, though Stevenson takes matters to a completely different level. The performer needs to bring that obsession to their performance and Levit, who I suspect to be more than a little obsessive in nature, is absolutely the right man for the job. The four-note ground bass must ring out again and again and again with total conviction if the piece is to make its full impact and this is precisely what Levit does without the slightest hint of fatigue or hesitation. When I first started listening to this recording, I found myself becoming obsessed with it. It’s that kind of record!

The very last section of the Passacaglia evokes Yuri Gargarin in space and it seems the logical destination for such a comprehensive piece of music, in that it is intended to be literally out of this world! Levit makes it the culmination of the whole album by finding all sorts of parallels to the Shostakovich, which seems like a very long time ago by the time we get to the end of Stevenson. Levit catches the strangeness of the opening of this closing section with an eery disembodied calm before finding the resources for one final climax before the bass motto that we have heard so many times in the previous hour and a quarter shuffles off into the darkness and silence follows. It is a disturbing ending to a disruptive and unsettling piece of music and for Levit this is clearly no studio indulgence but a work he has lived with and performed. Despite numerous noble efforts at recording the Passacaglia, Levit’s version eclipses all others. It is like something previously slightly out of focus coming into sharp relief.

This is a landmark recording, a work of serious artistry, inspired programming and a spark of creative invention that lifts some performances into a very rare category indeed. Even if the repertoire doesn’t appeal, this is a set that transcends normal considerations.

David McDade

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