Igor Levit’s “Triple Threat” Variation Tour-de-Force

Review by: Jed Distler

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Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 9

Igor Levit has created quite a stir in the piano world by recording serious, heavy-hitting repertoire for his first two Sony releases. He made a stunning debut with Beethoven’s last five sonatas, and followed up with excellent (albeit not extraordinary) readings of Bach’s Six Partitas. His third release, however, takes the cake for sheer ambition. Not content with coupling Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations as the late Daniel Varsano did for this label 30-odd years ago, Levit adds another comparably large-scale variation set to the mix, namely Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated, which has become more and more of a repertoire staple since it was composed in late 1975.

Many young artists would be proud to claim the sensitive, polished, and inherently musical pianism distinguishing Levit’s Goldbergs. The fluency and ease with which Levit navigates his briskly paced, virtuosic, cross-handed variations prevents them from sounding driven or pushed, while the lyrical No. 13 and three minor-key variations are eloquently understated. Yet comparative listening shows that Levit’s relatively restricted range of dynamics and articulations yield to Murray Perahia’s sophisticated voice leading and more varied and pinpointed execution all around.

Furthermore, Levit does not unify the variations into perceptible architectural or emotional arcs, in comparison with more personalized and inflected versions from Alexandre Tharaud and Lori Sims. Even Simone Dinnerstein’s less consistent traversal operates at a higher level of engagement. In fairness, Levit’s live New York performances in December 2015 revealed his interpretation to have ripened and blossomed in detail.

I suspect that Levit has lived longer with Rzewski’s variations. For example, Levit appears to have internalized the work’s more technically challenging episodes to the point where he can playfully toss off Variation Ten’s rapid-fire Boulezian brushstrokes or the finger-twisting patterns throughout the variations in Part Four (Nos. 19-24). He also understands that the marching rhythms throughout Variation 26 and elsewhere benefit from a steady gait, rather than slightly accelerating, as many younger People United practitioners tend to do. Levit also takes up the composer’s cadenza option with a brilliant six-and-a-half-minute microcosm of the entire work that sounds both pre-planned and improvised at the same time.

My main criticism has to do with Levit’s occasional lack of textural differentiation in thicker contrapuntal passages. Take Variation Eight, for instance, where Ursula Oppens and the composer himself better clarify the linear interplay between hands. Levit also tends to taper the theme when it reappears at certain junctures, like in Variation Thirteen. It’s a Chilean resistance song, not a Grieg Lyric Piece; yet again, too many young pianists who take up People United habitually apply generic expressive devices that have nothing whatsoever to do with Rzewski’s intentions or the nature of his material.

However, the technical and idiomatic authority Levit brought to Beethoven’s late sonatas proudly presides throughout the Diabelli Variations. Levit succeeds in conveying the work’s large-scale trajectory through carefully considered tempo relationships while paying attention to small details. He takes the theme at a true Vivace, slightly underplaying the accents, and projects the first variation’s maestoso chords with springing intensity while bringing wonderfully airborne lightness to the presto No. 10 and brilliantly capturing the caustic humor in No. 13’s pauses between phrases. Note also Levit’s assiduous transitions linking Nos. 25 through 27, and the slow, introspective Nos. 29 through 31. In No. 32’s fugue, Levit’s dry-point and detached yet buoyantly energetic articulation may surprise listeners accustomed to heavier, more declamatory readings.

In these and other respects Levit evokes the spirit and sometimes the letter of Peter Serkin’s two recordings (RCA and Pro Arte), although he may miss the expansive lyricism of Stephen Kovacevich’s remake or Rudolf Serkin’s blinding muscularity. If my critiques seem overly nitpicky, a pianist of Levit’s intelligence and talent needs to be judged within the context of his world-class peers. As such, Levit’s audacious “triple threat” variation tour-de-force, if not superseding our reference versions, amounts to a major achievement for a pianist who has not yet entered his 30s.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Bach: Perahia (Sony); Dershavina (Oehms Classics), Beethoven: Kovacevich (Onyx), Rzewski: Oppens (Cedille); Rzewski (HatArt)

J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations BWV 988
Ludwig van Beethoven: Diabelli Variations Op. 120
Frederic Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated!

  • Igor Levit (piano)

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