Last February, Igor Levit played a recital at Zankel Hall. He is a pianist, born in the Soviet Union, raised chiefly in Germany. On his program were preludes and fugues of Shostakovich—three of them, which is to say three pairs.
Like Bach, Shostakovich wrote twenty-four preludes and fugues, one pair in each key. (Unlike Bach, he did not do it twice.)
I was not enthusiastic about Levit’s playing of the Shostakovich. I was very enthusiastic—more than enthusiastic—about his playing of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. (For my review, go here.)
Last night at the Salzburg Festival, Mr. Levit played all twenty-four of Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues, in one sitting (with intermission). The recital took place in the Grosser Saal of the Mozarteum. And this time, I was very, very enthusiastic about Levit’s Shostakovich.
Who changed, he or I? I like to think he.
As he did in New York for his Shostakovich, Mr. Levit used sheet music and a page-turner. But—is “but” the right word?—his concentration was total. And he had obviously internalized these pieces. I will make a few general remarks about his playing.
He was pure and limpid. And then he was blunt and aggressive. It depended on the prelude or fugue, and Levit always demonstrated taste. He also demonstrated shrewd pedaling—which is extremely important in this music. Furthermore, Levit did not overemphasize subjects of fugues. This is a common error in the playing of fugues. Players virtually ask, “See? See?” Also, Levit knows the value of notes—he knows how long to hold them. For instance, he does not cut off final notes at random. He knows that such finishing has a musical purpose.
As he sat there, Levit cut to the heart of each prelude and fugue. There was no fuss, no muss. He was like a musical priest or monk, slightly obsessed. He played as though what he was doing were the most important thing in the world. (He reminds me of Michael Hersch in this respect.) He often made Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues sound like religious music.
If the composer had been in the Mozarteum last night, I think he would have said, “Geez: Are they that good? And that important?”
In February, Igor Levit showed me that he is a great pianist, and this assessment has only been confirmed.
As you know, Levit played just a few of the preludes and fugues in February. Last night, he played all twenty-four pairs. That is about two and a half hours of music. Is that wise? Is that sensible? Is that musical? Are those preludes and fugues meant to be heard complete?
I have long complained about a completeness craze in music. Pianists think they have to play all four Chopin ballades. I doubt the composer ever had any such thought. Pianists think they have to play all twenty-four Chopin preludes. Rare is the program that includes just a few. I even hear all four Chopin scherzos, which is absurd.
How about the preludes and fugues of Bach? How about the two books of The Well-Tempered Clavier? When was the last time you heard just a sampling on a pianist’s program? I can’t remember the last time I heard a sampling—a few of those (immortal) preludes and fugues.
I am not convinced that Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues are best showcased when played complete. I think of these things as individual piano pieces, or individual pairs. I think there is a numbing effect, when the preludes and fugues are played at one go. It is a long, long sit—an endurance test for the audience member as much as for the pianist. But if Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues are to be showcased complete, leave it to Levit.
Let me end with three footnotes.
1) Though it was nice and cool outside, it was very hot in the Mozarteum last night. This is a Salzburg tradition. I was one of the few men in the hall not wearing a coat and tie. So was Mr. Levit—which pleased me.
2) This summer, Mr. Levit has the rare honor of playing, not one, but two recitals at the Salzburg Festival. The next recital will be on Saturday, and the main work on the program is one that Levit has been championing: Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated! This is Rzewski’s magnum opus, and it is as impressive as it is leftist. More, actually.
3) Shostakovich’s Fugue in F-sharp minor, I think of as the “Happy Birthday” fugue. It is a long fugue, and I hear “Happy Birthday” over and over. See if you do too. Try Ashkenazy (and after the brief prelude, the fugue begins at about 1:15).