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REVIEW: Igor Levit Returns to La Jolla in an Impassioned Piano Recital

San Diego Story

Kenneth Herman

March 10, 2023


After hearing Igor Levit play a piano recital in 2015, Los Angeles Times Music Critic Mark Swed ended his glowing review with this statement:

“I have never known a young Russian pianist with a promise like Levit’s. He is the future.”

Thanks to the La Jolla Music Society, San Diegans have caught glimpses of this future. We experienced the Russian-German virtuoso play his first recital here in 2018 and a second time this Thursday at The Conrad. Like Levit’s 2018 recital, Liszt dominated his Thursday recital. In 2018, we heard him deliver an astounding transcription by Ferruccio Busoni of Franz Liszt’s great organ solo Fantasia and Fugue on “Ad Nos, ad Salutarum Undam,” and Thursday he topped that with a spellbinding account of Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B Minor, S. 178. Busoni slipped into Thursday’s recital with transcriptions of six organ chorale preludes from Johannes Brahms’ “Eleven Chorale Preludes,” Op. 122.

Levit underscored his devotion to transcriptions with a solo keyboard version of Richard Wagner’s Prelude to his opera Tristan und Isolde, and he proved his allegiance to contemporary music with Fred Hersch’s “Variations on a Folksong,” a substantial solo work Levit commissioned the eminent jazz artist to write for him.

With Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B Minor, the composer revolutionized the genre. Transcending those clearly established structures of the four-movement Classical piano sonata, he created a massive single-movement sonata in which major musical themes come and go freely at the inventive whim of the composer. In his Sonata in B Minor, Liszt created a vibrant dramatic scenario with rewards comparable to Hector Berlioz’ earlier Symphonie fantastique–but without the crutch of a literary narrative. When Liszt’s work was published in 1854, it divided the European musical establishment. Richard Wagner, who rarely had a good word for his fellow composers, found the work profound–even sublime–but when Johannes Brahms played Liszt’s sonata for Clara Schumann, the reigning concert pianist of the era dismissed it as mere clangorous noise.

As is so often the case, history makes fools of the traditionalists who cannot accept brilliant innovation, and the Sonata in B Minor has become one of the pillars of the piano repertory. Levit gave an aptly fiery, heaven storming account of the demanding work, using his tremendous technique to fashion sweeping, orchestral climaxes, yet sustaining a luminous cantabile line in quieter sections. In spite of its surprising turns, Levit’s beautifully crafted dramatic propulsion kept the sonata intently focused throughout the piece, and the sonorities he pulled from the Steinway proved unusually warm and welcoming.

Fred Hersch has taken the traditional American folk song “O Shenandoah” on a rather sophisticated journey for such a simple, homespun tune. Hersch’s catalogue of thematic treatments includes simple two-voice counterpoint, dense rhapsodic forays, enchanting ballad style, jazz-infused riffs, sturdy four-part chorales in various harmonic flavors, and deft Impressionist reveries. If he appears to favor short, concise variations that move quickly to contrasting moods and textures, I suggest he is challenging the listener to stay awake and listen intently. Levit rewarded his listeners with an abundance of elegant phrasing and a heartfelt commitment to the depth of this finely wrought addition to the repertory.

I cannot recall encountering Busoni’s piano transcriptions of Brahms’ six chorale preludes from his Opus 122 in the concert hall, but as an organist I have played every one of the Opus 122 collection in church services many times over the years. These are gems very much in the style of J.S. Bach’s Orgelbüchlein, that seminal collection of chorale preludes for the entire church year that every organist studies. Levit played these Brahms transcriptions with laudable sensitivity, emphasizing greater contrasts of dynamics and touch than the usual organ interpretation would provide. But that was an excellent decision for a work that opened a piano recital in a 500-seat hall.

Although I usually find Eric Bromberger’s printed program notes to be of great value, as an organist I feel I must correct his notes on the Brahms Eleven Chorale Preludes. The chorale prelude is not a variation form, although there is a certain kind of chorale prelude called the chorale partita that is the proper term for a set of variations on a chorale tune. Nearly all of J. S. Bach’s chorale based pieces–as well as the chorales of Brahms’ Opus 122–are preludes, that is a single iteration of the chorale melody enhanced by a complex accompanying texture. The purpose of a chorale prelude in a Lutheran service is to introduce the chorale (hymn) for the congregation to sing: it gives the proper key and sets the mood, but chorale partita would be far too long and involved to carry out this function. Improvising chorale variations is something Lutheran organists did outside of worship.

Secondly, most of the chorales of Brahms’ Opus 122 are not focused on the subject of death, although I understand why certain biographers would find this assertion to be a poetic touch for a composer’s final opus. In truth, only a few chorales of Opus 122 focus on final matters, but most of the chorales focus on other aspects of life. Levit opened with Brahms’ setting of “Herzlich thut mich erfreuen,” which is a hymn praising the delights of summertime. “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen” is a lovely Christmas carol that most English speakers know as “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” And “Schmücke dich, O liebe Seele” is a devotional chorale Lutherans sing in preparation to receive Holy Communion in a Sunday service. To be sure, the finale chorale of Opus 122 is “O Welt, ich muss dich lassen,” a valedictory hymn that Levit played with a serene confidence, a sense of fulfillment. It certainly did not feel like a “meditation on mortality.”

This recital was presented by the La Jolla Music Society on Thursday, March 9, 2023, in the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in downtown La Jolla.