Variation is the spice of life for young ‘pianist of the century’
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Variation is the spice of life for young ‘pianist of the century’

As Igor Levit’s third album hits the shelves ahead of his world tour, he speaks about finding a personal path to great composers’ well-known masterpieces

Russian-German pianist Igor Levit (Felix Broede)
Russian-German pianist Igor Levit (Felix Broede)

LONDON — By his own admission, Russian-German pianist Igor Levit is “the worse cook you can imagine.” But although he may be lost in the world of seasonings, for Levit, who at 28 has already been described as “the pianist of the century,” variation is the spice of life.

Speaking to The Times of Israel by phone from Germany, Levit says that his third CD, a set of variations that was released October 9, contains pieces that are among the most important and challenging work in his life to date. For Levit, Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” and Rzewski’s “The People United Will Never Be Defeated,” are not only the “greatest variation pieces of them all” but there is also something very personal about each of them.

“Basically, I can connect everything that has happened – privately, in jobs – somehow with these people,” he says.

Critics have hailed Levit as a “supremely intelligent pianist,” a player of “technical brilliance, tonal allure,” and “the most fascinating young pianist around.” Many musicians might buckle under such accolades and expectation, but Levit exudes a pragmatic attitude and maturity that defies his youth.

“There are definitely expectations. You have to live and work with that and be honest with yourself,” he says. “If you just act like you can do it but in the end you can’t, you won’t last for long. I must know what I can and can’t do. This is something I have to sort out with myself.”

There are definitely expectations. You have to live and work with that and be honest with yourself, says pianist Igor Levit. (Felix Borede)
There are definitely expectations. You have to live and work with that and be honest with yourself, says pianist Igor Levit. (Felix Borede)

Levit’s career to date has been a remarkable one, including considerable international acclaim and numerous awards, from first prize at the International Piano Academy Competition in Hamamatsu, Japan (2004) and a silver medal at the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel Aviv (2005) where he was the youngest participant.

In 2014, he won the newcomer categories in both the BBC Music Magazine and Royal Philharmonic Society awards and in 2011-13, Levit was also selected as a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist — a scheme launched in 1999 that helps talented musicians reach the next stage of their careers.

‘I felt a kind of limit and I hate limits’

But at 16, Levit’s characteristic determination and independent thinking led him to seek alternative musical instruction, which eventually brought him to Bach. Traditionally trained, he had felt constrained by the piano style.

“I felt a kind of limit and I hate limits,” he admits. Looking for a solution he happened to meet Hungarian musician Lajos Rovatkay, an expert in old music. He introduced Levit to pre-Bach keyboard literature, which included studying early Baroque Renaissance pieces.

“After a couple of years we then came to Bach’s music. I arrived there with totally different knowledge [which meant] playing Bach was such a joy.”

Then, without telling anyone, at age 18 he began to work on the “Goldberg Variations.” It was, he says, “Something very private because there was a time when I didn’t want to play them — I felt that they sounded weird on the piano.”

Besides Bach, Levit has studied Beethoven in depth. The Diabelli Variations is a piece that Levit says he has played the most.

“I remember when I began working on them. It’s [music] I have lived with for years and I play it everywhere I have the chance.”

When 16-year-old Igor Levit first heard 'The People United' by Rzewski, he decided to write to the American composer directly and a friendship was struck up. (Felix Borede)
When 16-year-old Igor Levit first heard ‘The People United’ by Rzewski, he decided to write to the American composer directly and a friendship was struck up. (Felix Borede)

When Levit first heard “The People United” by Rzewski — also at 16 — he decided to write to the American composer directly. A deep friendship developed between them and he describes meeting Rzewski as “one of the greatest things that has happened in my life. I consider Frederic to be one of the greatest and most significant composers of our time.” It is not surprising that Levit relished the opportunity to record his mentor’s monumental work.

Levit has performed in many major concert halls and music festivals around the world and, in early September, he made his BBC Proms debut at the Royal Albert Hall, London, as soloist performing Mozart’s piano concerto No 27 in B flat, with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Reviewers delighted in his improvised moments, which fused with Mozart’s own cadenza. He says that playfulness has always featured in his work. “It’s part of me,” he says, simply.

He was born in the city of Gorky (now known as Nizhny Novgorod) in Russia. His mother was head of keyboard at the local conservatoire and he inevitably began playing the piano when he was three. He says he remembers very little of his early life in Russia and in 1995, when he was eight — following Helmut Kohl’s 1990 invitation to Jews from the former Soviet Union to emigrate to Germany — he moved with his family to Hanover. Family is terribly important to Levit and they all still live in Hanover, close to one another.

‘I consider Frederic to be one of the greatest and most significant composers of our time’

Does he have any advice to any young aspiring musicians?

“I’m very young myself!” he says, laughing. “But Frederic [Rzewski] once said to me ‘you never give up.’ It sounds kind of easy and not very deep but it is. Never give up in your job, your beliefs and your personality. If you feel this is the right thing to do, do it.”

Levit is currently touring in Germany and then in late October he will be in Israel for a series of five concerts in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra. In December he will be in New York, playing the Goldberg Variations in collaboration with performance artist, Marina Abramović.

He has a demanding schedule and, as relaxation, Levit tries to see friends and family as much as possible, enjoys reading and is passionate about daily life and current affairs.

Levit acknowledges that his success brings a certain amount of pressure but says, “the negative feeling of that kind of pressure or of being afraid, is not familiar to me.”

Looking ahead, would he consider composing or conducting?

“I’m a very bad composer – like I’m a very bad cook! – but I do improvise more and more. So let’s see. I don’t set goals. All I do is bring music to the people. Sounds simple but that’s my aim. As long as I can do that, I’m fine.”

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