Igor Levit, dubbed by The New Yorker as a pianist “like no other”, doesn’t do things by halves. He has forged a reputation and loyal following around the world by performing and recording some of the most challenging and charismatic music in the pianist’s repertoire, from Bach’s Goldberg Variations to Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas and Diabelli Variations, Stevenson’s Passacaglia on DSCH and Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated.
Fantasia, the new release from Igor Levit, is the kind of typically thoughtful, erudite programming we have come to expect from this most serious of pianists.
Ferruccio Busoni: Fantasia contrappuntistica (Igor Levit, piano)
The monumental Fantasia contrappuntistica, Ferruccio Busoni’s homage to Bach’s The Art of Fugue, has long fascinated Levit, who describes it as “one of the most remarkable piano pieces of the twentieth century”, both intellectually and emotionally. The piece forms the centrepiece of his new two-cd set featuring radical works that explore the fantasy genre and “go beyond what a piano, as a physical instrument, was supposed to be” (Igor Levit) for the expression of “a bigger idea”. The Busoni is complemented by Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, Liszt’s B-minor Sonata (a fantasy in all but name), and Berg’s Sonata No. 1, a single-movement work like Liszt’s Sonata, which also shares the same key. These musical edifices are interleaved with four shorter works that Levit describes as “lead-ins that I feel intuitively are right”: Alexander Siloti’s transcendent arrangement of the famous Air from Bach’s Third Orchestral Suite, Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s song Der Doppelgänger, Busoni’s Nuit de Noël and an early piano piece in B minor by Alban Berg redolent of late Brahms. For Levit, the fantasy genre represents “maximal freedom and imagination and at the same time great rigour”: these are tightly structured works which push the boundaries of form and expression to profoundly dramatic effect.
Certainly, the Busoni Fantasia contrappuntistica is the most impressive performance on this imposing disc, 34 minutes of kaleidoscopic colours, improvisatory flights of fancy, passages of deep intimacy and introspection, and grand climaxes. Busoni makes huge demands on the performer, not just physically and technically, but emotionally and artistically too – there are impressionistic chords (to which Levit brings a gorgeous, otherworldly shimmer), tightly-constructed fugal passages (played with precision and clarity) and passages of piquant dissonance. Levit manages the myriad volte-faces within the work brilliantly, seemingly unfazed yet respectful of the music’s eclectic complexity.
Franz Liszt: Schubert – Schwanengesang, S560/R245: No. 12. Der Doppelgänger (Igor Levit, piano)
The other three fantasies are the staging posts on the way to Busoni – from the combination of sparkling fantasy and more restrained fugue (freedom and rigour) by Bach to Liszt’s monumentalism and Berg’s emotionally unstable Sonata. In each instance, Levit apportions requisite weight, lightness, grandeur, and spontaneity.
The shorter works do not necessarily offer light relief, though the opening Bach, elegantly transcribed by Siloti and played with a simple gracefulness by Levit, is the calm before the storms. Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s Der Doppelgänger is brooding and darkly lit, while Berg’s Klavierstück recalls late Brahms in its introspection and poignancy. Only the Nuit de Noël, Busoni’s delicate Christmas idyll, offers something gentler, a tender encore to an intellectually and emotionally challenging programme.
Sony Classical 19658811642 (2 discs)
For more of the best in classical music, sign up for our E-Newsletter