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REVIEW: Igor Levit’s Piano Recital in La Jolla: A Once-in-a-Lifetime Experience

San Diego Jewish World

Eileen Wingard

March 13, 2023


Einmalig, the German word for “once in a lifetime,” came to mind as Igor Levit began his piano recital in the Baker-Baum Hall at the Conrad in La Jolla with the opening passage of Brahms’ Six Choral Preludes. His opening phrase embraced my ears with its singular beauty. The nuanced melody came forth like a legato cello line as the counterpoint organically intertwined.

These works, originally written for organ and transcribed for piano by Ferruccio Busoni, were Brahms’ last compositions, written after the death of his beloved friend, Clara Schumann, and the year before his own death in 1897. They reverted to the North Germany Protestant liturgy, harkening back to Bach’s Choral Preludes. These were not dazzling virtuoso display pieces — that came later — but their lyrical beauty and stoic resignation, based on texts about death, were poignantly conveyed.

This was followed by  Variations on a Folksong, composed by the jazz pianist, composer, and educator, Fred Hersch. The folk song was “O Shenandoah,” which he takes through 20 variations before the tune returns in a grandiose finale. The variations were engaging in their contrasting manifestations and Levit, who commissioned this work, gave it a definitive performance.

The second half of the program consisted of Richard Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan und Isolde. The Hungarian pianist, Zoltan Cocsis transcribed it for piano. Although the piano is hardly able to achieve the color of the original orchestral version, under Levit’s fingers, they almost do. He also did an unusual linking of the final notes of the Prelude to the first notes of Lizst’s one movement Piano Sonata in B Minor. This is a single work, using three themes that are transformed during the three internal sections which actually correspond to the three sections of a conventional sonata.

Here, Levit displayed his dazzling technique and bravura virtuosity. But even here, in the heights of volume, playing with grandeur, the sound was always elegant.

I remember only two other times when I was so moved by the artistry of a pianist: when I heard a 22-year old Menachem Pressler play the Schumann Piano Concerto in UCLA’s Royce Hall in 1948 and when I was in the San Diego Symphony accompanying the 90-year-old Arthur Rubinstein in a Brahms Piano Concerto.

The rapt audience in the sold-out house attested to the einmalig, once-in-a-lifetime experience of this Igor Levit recital.