Igor Levit's recording of the Bach's Goldberg Variations, Beethoven's Diabelli Variations and Rzewski's The People United Will Never Be Defeated! for Sony Classical has taken the top prize – the Recording of the Year (sponsored by Qobuz) – at this year's Gramophone Awards. Levit played the Aria from the Goldberg's and the final section of People United at the Gramophone Awards ceremony in London this evening.
The album was Gramophone's Recording of the Month when David Fanning reviewed it in November 2015. He concluded his review: 'If a finer piano recording comes my way this year I shall be delighted, but frankly also astonished.'
Hugo Shirley spoke to Levit about the album in the same issue, an interview we republish below:
When Marc-André Hamelin released his recording of Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated! in 1999, Bryce Morrison wrote in these pages how he was impatient to see the Canadian pianist tackle Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations as well. That desire, articulated with a hint of wishful thinking, hasn’t yet come to pass – at least not from Hamelin. Step up Igor Levit. His new three-disc album offers all three works in a project that straddles nearly two-and-a-half centuries of the piano literature, presenting music that offers some of the greatest intellectual, musical and technical challenges a pianist can face.
Levit is not one to shy away from challenges, however. In just a short time the pianist, who was born in 1987 in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, but moved to Germany with his family at the age of eight, has established himself as one of the most fascinating instrumentalists around. His first two Sony discs, nominated for Gramophone Awards last year and this year, were of the late Beethoven sonatas and Bach Partitas. But the new set underlines that there’s a great deal more to him than that Big-B focus.
When I meet Levit in Berlin he is quick to make clear that he sees these composers as a trinity of equal importance. He doesn’t feel for one moment any sense of special pleading in the inclusion of Rzewski, the radical, consonant-heavy American composer (the name is pronounced ‘jefski’) whose People United was composed in 1975 as a modern complement to Beethoven’s great set of 33 variations on Diabelli’s simple little waltz. The fact that it has 36 variations, following the 33 and 30 ‘Veränderungen’ (the German word implies something more transformational than the somewhat flat English equivalent) of the Diabellis and the Goldbergs respectively, offers just one pleasing numerical development between these works, with Bach’s set providing a foundational lexicon of variation techniques that both Beethoven and Rzewski build upon.
It’s the morning after the final session. The works have been recorded in three four-day chunks over the course of several months in Berlin’s Funkhaus Nalepastrasse – a remarkable purpose-built recording venue erected in the 1960s German Democratic Republic in an industrial area of what was the city’s Köpenick district. (One of the designers, Gerhard Steinke, is still alive, Levit tells me excitedly: ‘He’s in his mid-90s and used to run a studio for electronic music in the GDR. Frederic knows him and wrote a piece for him called Zoologische Garten.’) The previous evening it was the Goldbergs, in a final session that consisted of a run-through of the complete work in front of an invited audience of ‘friends, colleagues,’ he says, and – if the left-wing dimension of Rzewski’s work isn’t making me mishear – ‘comrades’.
As we sit down to talk, I imagine Levit might well rather be elsewhere, and towards the end of the conversation he confides he’s desperate to get back to Hanover for a couple of days in the gap between engagements. He’s polite and completely engaged, however; he’s an early riser in any case, he tells me. I immediately find out it doesn’t take much to ignite the conversation: high energy and a combination of boundless enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity laced with a mischievous sense of the absurd all manifest themselves in speech that darts between subjects, effervescent on the surface but with frequent plunges into the philosophical depths.
His English is excellent but nevertheless struggles to keep up with his ideas, which are articulated with an honest candour that caused minor controversy in a recent interview, in which he was quoted as saying Chopin was ‘dumb’. His thoughts regarding the composer come across clearly in our conversation, though. He loves the music dearly, but claims, ‘I don’t play Chopin, because I simply think I’m really bad at it.’ This honesty is matched by generosity towards his peers: ‘I hear a colleague like Rafa [Blechacz], and I think it’s right. What he does is beyond incredible.’
As we discuss his present project, Levit’s clear-sighted sense of purpose comes to the fore. His first three albums were planned as such right from his first talks with Sony Classical more than three years ago, this final triptych forming the missing panel in the larger triptych that all three releases come together to create. It’s all closely ‘curated’ – that overused word suddenly seems the only one that fits – and there was never any doubt that it would include Rzewski’s piece: ‘I think this man is one of the most significant composers of our time; this is one of the most significant pieces and, among variations, I think it is one of the three greatest.’
Given how carefully his recording projects are planned, I wonder what’s coming next. He laughs: it’s barely 12 hours since finishing the last gargantuan project. There have been discussions, he tells me, and the three composers on the current album ‘are the most important to me. But two are missing,’ he adds: ‘Schubert and Busoni.’ Later in our conversation, as we delve deeper into the idea of variations – the musical form, he says, that has always been ‘the closest to me’ – he mentions ‘one of my very favourite piano pieces, which I’m going to play at Wigmore Hall – Busoni’s Fantasia contrappuntistica.’ Other works he refers to include Max Reger’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of JS Bach, and in interviews elsewhere he’s mentioned Stockhausen. He doesn’t seem to have enough ‘favourite’ labels to cover all these passions, but any subsequent projects with Sony, at least, look set to continue in a similarly uncompromising vein.
When I ask what it is about variation form that so appeals to him, the answer is less about the ingenuity of the composers or the opportunity it offers him as a pianist to revel in what he can do with the instrument. It’s clear in performance that Levit takes great intellectual and sensual delight in those aspects, though, and he remembers a recital where he improvised a variation on Beethoven’s Für Elise, applying a technique employed by Rzewski of playing just selected notes of the theme, disorientatingly repositioned up or down through octave displacement. ‘There were 1500 people, it was a serious concert,’ he tells me, ‘and I went out on stage after playing Hammerklavier and said, “Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, for an encore I’d like to play a modern piece by a composer named…” and then I just made up a name. “It’s called Fantasia, enjoy!”’ He played the complete piece in this way: ‘Di…da…dee…dom,’ he sings. ‘And some loved it, but no one recognised what it was. No one! So after this, I said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, before I play my second encore, can you tell me what you just heard?” No one recognised it. Then I played Für Elise.’
It’s a revealing episode but, as he continues, it becomes clear that variations mean something as much poetic and political to him as technical. ‘With the idea of the variation, it all starts with smaller pieces of different kinds of characters and moods, and it’s about how things change, how you basically express yourself. I always thought of variations as a kind of journey; and whoever you were here [at the start], here [at the end] you’re another person. At least that what I would like to believe.’
Of the three sets of variations on the new album, it’s the Beethoven that he’s been playing longest: his teacher at the Hanover Academy of Music pointed him in the direction of the score in 2004 and Levit performed it in his final examination there in 2010. It’s not like the ‘30 incredible little pieces’ that, he says, make up the Goldbergs. The Diabellis are a ‘a one-song piece’ (this 28-year-old has no qualms about using the apparently ‘unclassical’ terminology of iTunes). ‘You make this journey from the waltz, 50-plus minutes, and then all of a sudden, after the fugue, there are six bars of this incredible moment – it’s kind of senza time, and the waltz finally turns around and becomes a minuet. And you think: wait a second, where are we? Suddenly you open your eyes and this whole craziness is over, and it’s an incredible moment, an incredible experience you make.’
The journey in Rzewski’s The People United Will Never be Defeated! is no less clear for Levit. He first met Rzewski himself some 10 years ago. As an avid collector, he had stumbled across the piece in Hamelin’s recording and, bowled over by it, simply emailed the composer, asking him to write a work for him. (To date, Rzewski has dedicated eight sonatas from his cycle Nano Sonaten to Levit, and also composed a cycle of four pieces, Dreams II, for him.) Levit describes the friendship sparked by that first correspondence as ‘one of the greatest things in my life, and by no means only as a musician’.
As he began to work on The People United, Levit identified a similar sense of trajectory to the Diabellis. ‘You have this incredible experience of beginning with this march. You make a journey. You come back to the march and you keep on going.’ He recalls playing it in a concert in Hanover, after which Rzewski came backstage and patted him on the back. ‘“I know why this piece is so long,” he said, “because you never give up.” But not only had I had that experience, but I realised we do that together: the audience does the same thing. It’s a democratic kind of thing to happen. I finally understood that this is what it should be about.’
A musician’s ability to effect his or her uniting of people in a concert, to take the audience on a journey, is something that Levit sees as a political act in itself, although it’s difficult to pin him down as to how that process translates into the recording studio. ‘It’s similar, and I don’t think a recording should be something that you just happen to record live in concert.’
As we return to recordings in general, I ask about his relationship with Sony Classical. The label, he says, understood his priorities right from the start in 2012. ‘I played a crazy recital programme at the Klavier-Festival Ruhr, one I won’t play again, or certainly not for a long time: the 12 Debussy Etudes in the first half, the 12 Liszt Etudes in the second half. I ruined my arm for three weeks – it was beyond stupid,’ he adds with a laugh, before admitting: ‘It was quite cool though!’ He went for dinner with Sony’s Bogdan Roscic afterwards and quickly realised that they were on the same wavelength: ‘He knew what I was about.’
But Levit’s relationship with Sony Classical, it’s clear, is just one of many in his life that he lives out with uncompromising intensity: with Rzewski; with his agent (‘beyond close’); with his German PR (‘she’s like a member of the family’); with artists such as soprano Christiane Karg and tenor Simon Bode; and with Thorsten Schmidt, Intendant of the Heidelberg Spring Festival, where Levit gave his first public performance of the Goldbergs earlier this year. There’s also a close relationship with the recording team, and the Funkhaus itself, whose remarkable acoustic plays a role in the characteristic piano sound of Levit albums – the seductive mixture of richness, clarity and sheer pearly beauty. He, the recording engineer and the piano tuner leaven their lengthy recording sessions, he tells me, with laughter. ‘We three, we really trust each other. We have a very intense time. We work on the music. We tell dirty jokes. But we fight for results.’
Gramophone's Recording of the Year is sponsored by Qobuz