Smoldering beneath this essay was an undiminished fury over the odious remark that had been made to Levit at that dinner years ago—the insinuation that, as a Jew, he could never overcome his outsider status. He likes to quote James Baldwin: “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” For Levit, America is Germany.

The main event of Levit’s spring season was to have been a string of performances of Busoni’s immense, immoderate Piano Concerto, which requires not only a hypervirtuosic pianist but also a male chorus. The work is at once a transcendent example of the Romantic concerto and a diabolically entertaining satire of the genre—a self-conscious exhibition of excess. Levit played it once when he was eighteen, with the Göttingen Symphony. For years, he had been plotting his way back to it, and, with the assistance of the English-Italian conductor Antonio Pappano, had finally conquered the logistical obstacles. The first performance had been slated for April 2nd, in Rome, with the Orchestra and Chorus of the Academy of Santa Cecilia. It was cancelled as coronavirus deaths in Italy escalated into the thousands.

I had planned to attend the Rome performance; there is no concerto in or outside the repertory that I love more. During a video call in April, I asked Levit to talk about the piece, mainly because I wanted to hear it. After placing a pair of aubergines in the oven, he propped his phone on the piano and launched into the second movement, “Pezzo giocoso.” The piano begins with rapid-fire runs and scalar patterns that are all the more fiendishly difficult for being muted in dynamics and delicate in articulation. The orchestra bursts in with a galumphing passage marked “giovanescamente”—“youthfully.” Levit mimed it by chanting the dotted rhythm and waving his fists in the air. “Some passages in this movement are difficult to the point of total insanity,” he said, plunging into a finger-entangling run of thirds and sixths. “Once you get past those, you are in the clear. The piece gets wilder and wilder, but also easier, more pianistic. The ending is bananas.”

He attacked the keyboard again, bobbing his head like a hard-rock guitarist. Then he broke off and looked down. “It kills me not to be playing it,” he said. “Six months of work—gone.” He retrieved the aubergines from the oven and took a bite. A moment later, he was grinning again. “Oh, I have to show you this.” He paged through his score, found a passage in the second movement, and held it up to the phone. It was a swirl of scalar runs, next to which the word “SEX” had been scrawled, underlined twice. “That is me at age eighteen. I can’t explain it. There is nothing at all sexy on this page. Maybe it was some other kind of memo to myself.”

Busoni lingers on the edges of the repertory but looms large in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century musical history. An Italian who settled in Berlin, an archetype of German cosmopolitanism, Busoni played many roles in the culture of his time: as a composer of multiple styles and selves; as a pianist of mesmerizing powers; as a visionary theoretician; as a polemicist against reactionary trends; and as the guru for a circle of pupils that included Kurt Weill and Edgard Varèse. Matti Raekallio told me, “Busoni showed what the artist can be and should be: composer, performer, artist, citizen. This is something Igor also embodies. Playing the piano is just one way of expressing himself. There is more at stake than just getting the notes right.”

That expansive conception of the performer’s role guided Levit’s quarantine concert series. Early on, he favored familiar fare, particularly Beethoven, but as the weeks went by he grew more adventurous. “My days as the healer of the nation are numbered,” he joked to me in early April. Shortly afterward, he offered a suite of pieces on hard-left themes: Paul Dessau’s “Guernica” (1938), inspired by Picasso’s anti-Fascist painting of the previous year; Rzewski’s “Which Side Are You On?,” based on the mine workers’ song made famous by Pete Seeger; and Cornelius Cardew’s “Thälmann Variations” (1974), named for Ernst Thälmann, a German Communist leader who was murdered by the Nazis. Another night, he essayed Ronald Stevenson’s “Passacaglia on DSCH” (1960–63), which declares solidarity with Communist ideals and has a passage marked “with a quasi-Gagarinesque sense of space.” Levit highlighted such political contexts in his remarks at the piano. When he mentioned violence against immigrants in modern Germany, a troll surfaced in the Periscope chat room, and was chased away.

During our Busoni chat, Levit mused on what his Hauskonzerte might mean for his future career. “Stevenson’s ‘Passacaglia’ is second to none,” he told me. “It encompasses the entire world—African drums, Scottish bagpipes, outer space, everything. But, most of the time, if I told a concert hall I wanted to play it there’d be a polite silence. Here at home, if I feel like doing it, I do it. And, lo and behold, people are interested.” He checked the archived video. “Twenty-six thousand people have listened to the Stevenson. Some were there only for a few minutes, I know, but it proves something.” (One appreciative listener had posted, “Without this concert my horizons would be smaller.”) If Levit were giving concerts now, he would be playing programs that he had agreed to back in 2017 or 2018. At home, he could choose whatever pieces fit his mood an hour before he turned on his camera. That sense of urgency was especially strong in Stevenson’s “Passacaglia,” in a seething account of Busoni’s “Fantasia Contrappuntistica,” and in a two-and-a-half-hour-long traversal of Shostakovich’s Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues.

Undermining Levit’s newfound freedom was a deep dread for the future of his art. The classical-music world was already in a fragile economic state before the coronavirus struck. Now, with large gatherings forbidden indefinitely, an apocalypse looms. Levit does not face the immediate crisis that has overwhelmed so many working musicians: he is well paid for his concert appearances and recordings, and in 2018 he received the Gilmore Artist Award—a prize of three hundred thousand dollars that is given to a concert pianist once every four years. Levit says, “Those of us who are on the fortunate end of the profession have to be really, really careful about what we say, because so many people are suffering. Still, I look every day at the danger of my whole world dying. Systemically, we are in grave, grave danger. And I cannot say that music matters less, that it is not ‘essential.’ To me, it is absolutely essential. It is my reason for being.”

Amid the agony of waiting, Levit ponders how he might apply his recent experiences to normal musical life, if and when such a thing resumes. “When I started doing these house concerts,” he told me, “I realized that every single problem I had ever had with the performing world suddenly disappeared. I never really cared about acoustics. I never cared that much about the quality of the piano. All I wanted to do was play. The important point about these concerts is not how they sound but the fact that they happened. Everything is getting reduced to the essential thing of being there and playing.” ♦