Igor Levit Is Like No Other Pianist
He’s a political activist. His repertory is vast. And, during Germany’s shutdown, he streamed more than fifty performances from home. It’s made him question what a concert can be.
On March 10th, the German pianist Igor Levit played Beethoven’s Third and Fifth Piano Concertos at the Elbphilharmonie, the hulking concert complex in Hamburg. It was his thirty-third birthday and, it turned out, his last public concert for many weeks. The next day, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, delivered a dire warning about the scope of the looming coronavirus pandemic, and performance spaces began closing across the country. At the time, Levit had a full schedule before him. He had recently issued a boxed-set recording of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas, and was playing Beethoven cycles in several European cities. He was also preparing to tackle an arcane colossus of the piano literature—the seventy-minute Piano Concerto by the early-twentieth-century composer-virtuoso Ferruccio Busoni, a hero of his.
“That next day, the eleventh, was kind of a shock day,” Levit told me recently, in a video call from his apartment, in Berlin. “On the twelfth, I was shopping in a grocery store, and I had this thought: What if I live-streamed a gig?” He peered into his phone with a grin. He is a trim young man with sharp features, a high Mahlerian hairline, and a thin growth of beard. He was wearing a T-shirt that read “Love Music Hate Racism.” He speaks rapidly and incisively, his English nearly as good as his German. Sometimes he seems more mature than his years, poised and oracular; at others, he comes across as an antic, restless member of his digital-native generation.
Levit went on, “When I got home, I did what I usually do, which is to throw a thought into the public arena without thinking about any consequences. I went on Twitter and said, ‘O.K., I’m going to play for you guys tonight at my place.’ After having tweeted that, I realized, Hang on—I’ve never streamed anything, I know shit about streaming, I don’t even know if Twitter allows thirty minutes of streaming, I have no camera stand. I had a total panic. I was sending messages to friends: ‘Do you know how streaming works?’ And this tweet was already out there. It was a catastrophe. I ran to the last electronics store that was still open, and got some stuff for twenty-four euros.”
I saw Levit’s tweet and tuned in. The setting was familiar, because I had met with him there the previous summer. He lives in a spacious, airy, sparely decorated apartment in the Mitte neighborhood of Berlin, with plate-glass windows overlooking a park. His instrument is a 1923 Steinway B that once belonged to the great Swiss pianist Edwin Fischer. At 7 p.m., Levit pressed the Record button on his smartphone and trotted in front of his newly acquired home-Webcasting equipment, dressed casually in a black-and-gray pullover shirt and black pants. He gave a brief introduction, in German and English: “It’s a sad time, it’s a weird time, but acting is better than doing nothing. Let’s bring the house concert into the twenty-first century.” He then tore into Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata, in a fashion typical of him—precipitate, purposeful, intricately nuanced. It was an imposing structure aglow with feeling.
Other pianists of Levit’s generation may have achieved wider mass-market fame—Lang Lang and Yuja Wang come first to mind—but none have comparable stature as a cultural or even a political figure. In German-speaking countries, Levit is a familiar face not only to classical-music fans but also to a broader population that shares his leftist, internationalist world view. He has appeared on mainstream German TV shows; participated in political panel discussions; and attended the annual gathering of the Green Party, playing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the anthem of the European Union. It was no surprise that Levit’s inaugural live stream attracted attention, though I was taken aback when the number of viewers climbed into the tens of thousands.
In the following weeks, as Levit kept Webcasting each night, a convivial online community formed around him on Twitter and its Periscope app—a self-described “Igor Familie.” Periscope includes a chat-room sidebar, with hearts floating up the screen like bubbles. Most comments were in German, but there were salutations from Nairobi, Tokyo, and Montevideo. Some viewers made musicological points—“New harmonic structures become transparent,” one person wrote when Levit tackled Brahms’s arrangement of the Bach Chaconne in D Minor—while others discussed the pianist’s facial hair, T-shirts, and footwear. “Hard rock fan from Düsseldorf is thrilled,” one commenter said. Levit delivered short talks, usually focussed on the music at hand. He never spoke at the end, though emotion sometimes surfaced. Once, halfway through Schubert’s sublime Sonata in B-flat, he buried his head in his hands, hiding tears; he did the same after Morton Feldman’s solitary, unearthly “Palais de Mari.”
Levit’s Hauskonzerte drew notice in high places. For the twenty-second night of the series, he was invited to perform in the concert room at Schloss Bellevue, the German Presidential residence. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who holds the largely ceremonial office of President, provided an introduction, praising Levit not just for giving comfort but also for highlighting the fact that “many artists are in crisis—no performance opportunities, no concerts, no productions—and, because they are in crisis, they need our support.” Levit, this time wearing a black jacket and dress shoes, again played the “Waldstein”—the only time in the series that he repeated a piece. When I asked Steinmeier’s office for a comment about Levit, I received a statement extolling the pianist’s “acute sense of the power of public life, community and solidarity.” At a recent press conference, Steffen Seibert, the chief spokesperson for the Merkel government, made mention of “a pianist’s famous house concerts”—undoubtedly meaning Levit, even if the name went unsaid.
On May 4th, Levit streamed his fifty-second concert—his last, for the time being. “I need to take a break and recalibrate,” he told me. “I mean, I haven’t read a book in four weeks.” This phase of his career had been disorienting. He had gained even greater visibility, yet he was isolated in his apartment, fearful of what an extended shutdown will mean for cultural life. (He has had several girlfriends, but is currently unattached.) Levit went on, “I mean, one journalist said that I was creating ‘fireplace moments for the nation.’ For God’s sake! All I wanted to do was to share something, do something, instead of just sitting in my apartment and watching everything crumble.” One day, Levit sent me a text saying, “Maybe for the first time do I understand what it means to speak of music as something life-keeping. It really keeps me alive. . . . I don’t care if it’s wrong or right, whatever B.S. that means, just as long as I can actually press down the black and white keys. I’ve never, never been freer than now. Never. And I am in tears half the day. Very, very dark. And yet. The existential must of music-making really becomes bigger and bigger by the minute.”
Concert pianists are often stereotyped as remote souls, apt to lose themselves in the palaces of sound they summon at the keyboard. Levit is emphatically not a loner. He has a global network of friends, and transmits countless e-mails, texts, emojis, and GIFs every day. He is a cultural omnivore who is as likely to quote from Kendrick Lamar or “Simpsons” episodes as from Kafka or James Baldwin. Outfitted in a hoodie, a T-shirt, and jeans, he blends in easily with other guys on the streets of Berlin. His moderately hip image arouses suspicion in conservative corners of the classical-music world. “Just shut up and play,” he has heard people say, in several languages. From a more radical perch, the Berlin-based online magazine VAN has suggested that Levit is excessively self-dramatizing: “In the race for attention, Levit is a bit like Usain Bolt: he always seems effortlessly ahead.”
The fixation on Levit’s extramusical activities tends to overlook the fact that music is always churning through his mind, even when he seems preoccupied with other matters. As I met with him during the past year, I was most struck by his staggering command of centuries of repertory, whether or not a work is written for his instrument. Rehearsing Beethoven’s “Les Adieux” before a recital, he noticed that one passage resembled a phrase in Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung,” and began playing the opera from memory. Another time, he tried out a piano piece by the nineteenth-century French maverick Charles-Valentin Alkan, then segued into a sonorous approximation of the Adagio of Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony. He is just as prone to break into Henry Mancini, Nina Simone, or the Fred Hersch arrangement of Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes.” He is a completely musical animal, albeit an alert and worldly one.
Levit was born in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, in 1987, and moved to Germany with his family when he was eight. His father, Simon, is a construction engineer; his mother, Elena, is a pianist and a pedagogue, specializing in children’s musical education. The family is Jewish, though not particularly religious. “My parents simply wanted a better life—a better education for my sister and for myself, a better perspective for themselves,” Levit told me. They settled in Hannover, the capital of the state of Lower Saxony.
He has few memories of Russia. “My first encounter with Germany and the German language was, in a way, so emotional, so enthusiastic, that everything before that disappeared,” Levit told me. “I said that I was going to learn to speak better German than any of my classmates. I speak Russian with my parents. But when I went back to Russia recently—for the first time in seventeen years—it felt very touristy.”
Germans love to debate the question “What is German?” In 2017, the scholar Dieter Borchmeyer published a best-selling thousand-page book with that title, arguing that German culture hangs in perpetual tension between expansively cosmopolitan and strictly nationalist definitions of identity. Levit firmly belongs to the cosmopolitan camp. On his Web site, he describes himself as “Citizen. European. Pianist.” Not until his early twenties did he feel his right to Germanness questioned. At an upper-crust dinner following a concert, he was shocked when a middle-aged lawyer said to him, “You must never forget that although you grew up in Germany and live in Germany, you belong to a population group that was intended not to live here anymore.” Levit was being told, in shockingly racist terms, that some people would always see him as an interloper. He knew then that the old ghosts of German hyper-nationalism and anti-Semitism could rise again, as indeed they have.
Levit began playing piano at the age of three, under his mother’s tutelage, and made his début a year later, with Beethoven’s “Ecossaise in G.” By his early teens, he was playing the Grieg Piano Concerto and other entry-level virtuoso fare. More atypically, he made a piano transcription of Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis.” He did not, however, become a touring prodigy after the fashion of Lang Lang, or, in a previous generation, Evgeny Kissin. After earning second prize at the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel Aviv, in 2005, he returned to his studies at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater, in Hannover. His mother has long taught there; he recently joined the faculty, which means that he can visit his family more often.
This relatively slow start allowed Levit to develop away from the spotlight, trying out repertory without facing outsized expectations. He also underwent a socialization process that many prodigies forgo. He was, in some ways, a normal high schooler, and, along with many of his German peers, developed a taste for American hip-hop. “I went around with my Walkman and pretty much knew every line of Eminem,” he said. “Black Star was also very big for me. My first real experience of under-the-skin politicization was this fearless, borderless storytelling about yourself.” A little later, he fell in love with the music of Thelonious Monk. “For the longest time, I wanted to be Monk, which was, of course, absurd, but it had a big, big influence on how I play the piano. That naked sound—no, not naked, but exposed, skeleton-like, oppositional. That is also Beethoven, for me.”
Some of Levit’s teachers discouraged his voracious musical appetites, but at the Hochschule he was fortunate to receive instruction from the Finnish pianist Matti Raekallio, who let him roam free. Raekallio, who now teaches at Juilliard, told me that having Levit as a student was like winning the lottery: “The so-called lessons with him were not really lessons, since there was nothing one could teach him about piano playing. Instead, they were conversations—about music, about life, about everything. I had never encountered such a natural curiosity, in which he had devoured everything and then wanted to know more.” Levit has a formidable technique, although maintaining it is not effortless. “Octaves are not really my friends,” he told me after a performance of the Brahms Second Concerto in Vienna, shaking his hands at his sides. He asserts himself through his grasp of musical architecture, his differentiation of moods, his urgency of expression. These qualities make him a superlative interpreter of Beethoven, whose power is always cumulative in effect.
Raekallio also led Levit toward the grand eccentrics in the piano firmament: the likes of Alkan, Busoni, Kaikhosru Sorabji, and Ronald Stevenson. The last two are twentieth-century British cult figures who specialized in scores of delirious complexity. As Levit explored this esoteric terrain, he developed an intense regard for the man who perhaps knows it better than anyone alive—the august Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin. “When I was a student, my single greatest hero was Marc,” Levit says. “Everything he recorded I had to learn. Now we are good friends, and sometimes play together.”
When Levit was sixteen, he came across Hamelin’s recording of “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!,” an hour-long work from 1975 by the radical-minded American composer Frederic Rzewski. By turns convulsively modernistic and brashly neo-Romantic, it consists of thirty-six variations on Sergio Ortega’s “El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido,” which became famous as a song of protest against the Chilean military dictatorship. Levit, whose commitment to leftist politics was deepening, found Rzewski’s e-mail address on the Internet and wrote him a fan letter. “And then, because I was sixteen, or whatever, I asked him if he would write a piece for me.” To Levit’s surprise, Rzewski responded that he would write something, for money. After persuading a local new-music group to pay for the commission, Levit became the dedicatee of the second book of Rzewski’s “Nanosonatas”—music of nervous brilliance that matched the pianist’s emerging personality.
An unlikely friendship developed between the accomplished young German and the legendarily contrarian older American, who has long railed against the mainstream classical-music business. In 2015, Levit played “The People United” at Wigmore Hall, the venerable London chamber-music venue, where Beethoven string quartets and Schubert piano sonatas are the more usual fare. Rzewski was in the audience, and afterward he went onstage to congratulate Levit. “He leaned in to hug me and rasped in my ear, ‘You’re a real motherfucker,’ ” Levit recalled. “I wasn’t sure how to take that at first. Eventually, I decided that it was the single greatest compliment I’ve ever received.”
Levit introduced himself to the international public in an ostensibly conventional manner, with a recording of Beethoven. The Sony Classical label signed him in 2012, after he had attracted notice as a member of the BBC’s young-artist program. His first Sony project was nonetheless bold in concept, even brazen: where other début pianists might have stuck to the “Moonlight,” the “Appassionata,” or the “Waldstein,” Levit offered a two-disk set of Beethoven’s final five piano sonatas, including the titanic “Hammerklavier.”
To some, the gesture smacked of arrogance. He told me, “I know there is this attitude that you are supposed to wait until you are sixty-five and have seen life and the world and suffering before you approach late Beethoven. But I know thirteen-year-olds who know a level of suffering that these full-of-themselves, elegant mid-sixties artists have absolutely no fucking idea about. Give me a break! Anyway, that’s where I started, with late Beethoven. Matti really helped give me that attitude. He would say, ‘Just go do it. Just be a pianist. I will help you not to be an idiot.’ ”
When that début recording arrived in the mail, I rolled my eyes, but skepticism soon gave way to wonder. The opening gestures of Opus 111, in C Minor, were almost frightening in their intensity; the inward-searching lyricism of the second movement suggested a sage elder who could remember the world before the wars. When Levit traversed the entire cycle for Sony, in sessions extending from 2017 to 2019, he considered rerecording the late sonatas, but decided that his earlier attempts held up. A sleight of hand happens as you make your way through the set: Beethoven gets older while Levit gets younger.
In 2014, Levit made his North American début with an all-Beethoven program at the Park Avenue Armory. Surpassing even the assurance of his recordings, he proved to be no fluke of the studio. At the same time, I thought that his playing tended toward extremes. Between the heaven-storming up-tempo passages and the cosmic cantilenas, I yearned for a little more wit and whimsy. The good news of the Sony set is that it has these qualities in profusion, especially in the less celebrated corners of the canon. In the Andante of Opus 14, No. 2—a sequence of subtly playful variations on a somewhat drab theme—Levit teases out understated comedy in unexpected variations of dynamics, with a perfectly executed fortissimo punch line. In the first movement of Opus 78, he finds an easy-flowing, Schubertian songfulness in the main theme, which then gives way to mercurial shifts in mood.
Having established himself as an authoritative Beethovenian, Levit looked both backward and forward. In 2014, he released a recording of the Bach Partitas; the following year, he issued a three-disk set of three gigantic variation sequences: Bach’s Goldbergs, Beethoven’s Diabellis, and Rzewski’s “People United.” That effort led to a collaborationwith the performance artist Marina Abramović, whom Levit met through the impresario Alex Poots, who was in charge of the Park Avenue Armory at the time. Levit found himself playing the Goldbergs while drifting across the vast Armory space on a rotating platform. He enjoyed the carnivalesque atmosphere that Abramović brought in her wake. Although he is generally indifferent to celebrity names of the American type—when I mentioned David Geffen Hall, he asked, “There is a Mr. Geffen?”—he was dazzled when Abramović showed up backstage with Monica Lewinsky. He told me, his eyes still wide in amazement, that Lewinsky was “gorgeous, smart, clever, focussed—the nicest human being.”
Perhaps the most remarkable of Levit’s recordings is a two-disk album titled “Life,” which came out in 2018. It was a memorial to the German artist Hannes Malte Mahler, who died in a bicycle accident in 2016. The two men had met in 2011 and immediately became close friends. “Hannes came from a world very different from mine, this wild world of contemporary art,” Levit told me. “Accidentally or not, he always gave me the feeling that I am allowed to be who I am, without explaining or apologizing. I can just be.” Mahler’s death left Levit in a state of prolonged shock. “Aside from the loss, I had this sense that I had to go on even more with that process of taking away layers, discarding fears, letting myself be who I am. I really turned into a different person. No more bullshit.” A painting of Mahler’s, showing a gray village street with a gladiolus suspended above it, hangs next to Levit’s piano.
In honor of his friend, Levit fashioned for his disk a centuries-spanning montage of styles, eras, and genres: adaptations of Bach by Brahms and Busoni, Liszt’s elaborations on Wagner and Meyerbeer, a Rzewski work called “A Mensch,” Bill Evans’s “Peace Piece.” Most of these scores involve one composer responding to another—a suitable memorial for a friendship between artists. This idiosyncratic project made Levit even more of an outlier among pianists of his generation—a swerve from the conventional path of carefully curated concert tours, recordings, and media appearances. Many an agent would have discouraged such an undertaking, but Kristin Schuster, who has managed Levit’s career since 2013, supported him, as did Sony Classical. “They were fantastic,” he says. “They knew there was this grizzly-bear-like energy in me, and it had to run its course.”
Rebellious gestures notwithstanding, Levit remains a disciplined artist. He is not the kind of interpreter who draws attention to himself with outlandish gestures. Sometimes he wonders whether he could do something more radical. Last summer, I joined him as he travelled from Berlin to Zurich and on to Lucerne, where he was playing a Beethoven recital. During a late-night ride from the airport, he asked me if I knew Rzewski’s 1991 live recording of the “Hammerklavier.” I didn’t, and within seconds he had summoned up a video of the performance on his iPad. “You will notice that it says one hour, six minutes, fifty-two seconds,” he said. “Usually, the ‘Hammerklavier’ takes around forty-five minutes. So, why is this? Does he play it very slowly? No! He plays several long cadenzas.” Levit slid his finger along the timing bar until he found a representative stretch—a keyboard-spanning, avant-Romantic fantasia on the sonata’s thunderous opening motif.
Levit shook his head in awe as light from the computer danced against the lenses of his glasses. “Now, this is someone who has total freedom,” he said. “And it’s probably a very good approximation of what Beethoven himself sounded like, because everyone said that his improvisations were far crazier than whatever he wrote down. But, you know, only Frederic gets to do that. I have no idea how I’d go about doing such a thing. Improvisation is a systematic art you must study for a long time.”
He fell silent for a moment. “Oh, and let me show you this,” he said, browsing on his iPad again. “Here!” It was a scene from “The Simpsons,” in which Homer says, “I have three kids and no money. Why can’t I have no kids and three money?”
I looked puzzled, and he laughed. “O.K., yes, that has nothing do with the ‘Hammerklavier.’ I just think it’s funny. ‘Three money’!”
When I next saw Levit, in early December, his mood had changed. He was in Hamburg, at the outset of a brief tour with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, playing Brahms’s two piano concertos on separate nights. His manner was uncharacteristically furtive. “Things are strange,” he told me, backstage at the Elbphilharmonie, where the concert was taking place. “These last couple of weeks, they have been very strange.” I waited expectantly. “Very, very strange. We will discuss later.”
Levit went into his dressing room to take a phone call while the orchestra gathered onstage to rehearse. Paavo Järvi, the Kammerphilharmonie’s longtime music director, stepped to the podium and looked around. “Where is Igor?” he asked. He shrugged, smiled, and gave the downbeat for the grandly ominous orchestral introduction of Brahms’s Concerto in D Minor: a fortissimo D in the horns, double-basses, violas, and timpani. I sent a text to Levit: “Your concerto is starting.” After a minute or two, he appeared through the side door and bounded toward the piano, waving his arms in a birdlike motion, as if riding the waves of the music. He arrived on the bench twenty or so seconds before the piano’s stealthy, pensive entrance. The orchestra, apparently accustomed to such behavior, took no notice.
After the rehearsal, in Levit’s dressing room, he told me what had been going on. A few weeks earlier, he had appeared on a political talk show hosted by the German journalist Maybrit Illner, and participated in a discussion of hate speech. The panel also included Ralf Schuler, an editor from the right-wing tabloid Bild. Schuler, attempting to show that hate could inflame the left as well as the right, brought up a tweet that the pianist had posted in 2015, at the time of the refugee crisis in Germany. Levit had written that members of the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland Party, who had waged hate campaigns against the refugees, had “forfeited their humanity”—their Menschsein. Wasn’t the tweet itself dehumanizing? Levit responded by saying that he had been brought up to understand the word Mensch in its Yiddish sense: “A Mensch is a person of honor.” On that basis, he remained secure in his belief that the extremists lacked humanity, and he took nothing back.
Schuler’s remarks brought Levit to the attention of people on the far right, who began attacking him publicly and privately. He was called Judensau, a Jewish pig, and within a couple of weeks he had received three death threats—two on e-mail, one on Instagram. The messages, which Levit shared with the police, mentioned two forthcoming events on his schedule: a concert in early December and one in January. The first of these dates was in Wiesbaden—the night after the concert I was about to see at the Elbphilharmonie. But some ambiguous wording in the threat made it seem possible that tonight could be the target.
Levit paced his dressing room and made himself an espresso. “To hell with these people,” he said. “It doesn’t produce fear, it produces a certain kind of anger, like, a real anger. And it produces a very energizing feeling of ‘O.K., you try me, you will get more.’ I don’t want to overprize myself: other people, especially women, receive this kind of thing on a daily basis. But it does make me very intensely consider who I want to be—what kind of, let’s say, citoyen I want to be. I am a musician, but I am who I am. I think about becoming not only louder but deepening my actions. I don’t know yet what that would be. It’s a very interesting time.” Levit told me that he has no interest in entering politics, although it is obvious that the field fascinates him.
I went to my seat in the hall while Levit put on his concert dress. Thirty minutes later, he was launching into the Brahms. I felt an unease I had never experienced before in a concert hall. Looking around, I wondered whether an attack was actually possible, and whether Levit’s performance had acquired some extra edge of anger and defiance. It was difficult to say, since the first movement of the D-Minor Concerto is angry and defiant from the start. In the second movement, though, dire thoughts receded. The piano part of the Adagio begins with a passage marked “molto dolce espressivo,” or “very sweet and expressive.” It is music of almost vertiginous loveliness and loneliness—a lullaby remembered in grief. Levit is never more impressive than when he loses himself in such lyric idylls.
Afterward, I asked Levit what he had felt onstage. He said, “Honestly? Once the music started, I did not think about it. For me, the stage becomes the one place of freedom, absolute freedom. Nobody is bothering me, there are no phone calls, no interruptions. The worst thing that can happen, the worst thing possible, is a wrong note. Also, to hell with those people.”
The police had asked Levit to avoid talking about the threats until after the Hamburg and Wiesbaden concerts. In late December, he published an essay on the subject, which appeared in the Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. “Was I afraid?” he wrote. “Yes, but not for myself.” He linked his experiences to more serious instances of physical and verbal violence in Germany: a 2017 knife attack on Andreas Hollstein, the mayor of Altena; the 2019 assassination of the Hessian politician Walter Lübcke, who supported Merkel’s open-door policy toward refugees; the 2019 resignation of Martina Angermann, the mayor of Arnsdorf, in the wake of incessant online harassment. This trend of violence could be connected to the spread of hate speech online: “First the speech, then the deed.”
Levit defended his stance as an engaged musician—his refusal to “shut up and play.” Music has astonishing powers of communication, he wrote, but it cannot name things: “To be free requires employing your own senses. To hear, to see, to feel, to smell. Music allows us to feel this kind of freedom. But music is not a substitute, it cannot be a substitute. Not for truth, not for politics, not for human understanding and sympathy. It cannot be a substitute for calling racism racism. It cannot be a substitute for calling misogyny misogyny. It can never be a substitute for being a wakeful, critical, loving, living, and active citizen.”
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.” ♦