Brahms | Levit: Knowing Love

Both are at home in the Musikverein: Johannes Brahms, almost a kind of patron saint and constantly present through the priceless Brahms collection that he bequeathed to the Musikverein. And Igor Levit, most recently portrait artist of the Musikverein last season. In 2023/24 they will find close cooperation here. Igor Levit devotes himself to the piano works of Brahms – in concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic and Christian Thielemann, in chamber music and solo programmes.

© Peter Meisel

© Collections of the Society of Music Friends in Vienna

Igor Levit, as one hardly knows him: Not as a herald of unknown and/or contemporary composers, not as a pioneer for Ferruccio Busoni or even as a Beethoven world traveller. In the new season, the pianist will mainly play works by Johannes Brahms at the Musikverein. Like his patron Robert Schumann or his antipode Franz Liszt, he was initially a piano virtuoso for his contemporaries. Still, we experience him in the repertoire instead as a symphonist or creator of precious chamber music. Above all, the two piano concertos of the pianist Brahms have remained with us. They are also in Igor Levit’s program this year. But the universally interested interpreter, as so often, reaches much further. Of course, the D minor Piano Concerto in this Brahms kaleidoscope is the beginning, chronologically. This first large-scale orchestral work by the composer still bears traces of the fierce struggle into which the creation process degenerated. In the beginning, there were probably the mighty, thunderous sound visions with which the concert lifts. Despite all the differences in tone, Brahms’s First Concerto contains at least as many octave courses for the soloist as Liszt’s sister works, which have fallen somewhat into disrepute among music aestheticians … Brahms probably also felt this to be a shortcoming: “A second one should be different,” Brahms told his companion Clara Schumann – almost apologetically – when he sent her the score of the D minor Concerto. Of course, it took more than two decades before the “different” counterpart was created: The B flat major concerto turned out in 1881 in the summer resort of Preßbaum near Vienna from sketches recorded during a trip to Italy. Brahms perhaps only conjured up sunnier orchestral sounds in his Second Symphony. However, shadows are repeatedly cast over the brightly lit soundscape.


In addition, Brahms inserted a scherzo into his Second Piano Concerto, as he had already envisaged a few years earlier for his Violin Concerto, thus expanding the classical concert form into symphonic dimensions. The “other”, the lighter tone, prevails from the beginning of the lyrical horn solo, but the technical demands on the soloist’s fullness are also repeatedly threatening. Igor Levit is trusted to question the extent to which this inevitably results in bulkiness: anyone who knows how to read notes as precisely as he does probably feels more delicate sounds than those usually provided by the performance tradition not only in the B flat major work but already in Opus 15. In this respect, one can expect “other” listening adventures from Levit’s Viennese Brahms voyage of discovery, even at the pianist’s chamber music meetings with Renaud Capuçon and Julia Hagen. Perhaps those that are based on Arnold Schoenberg’s warning voice. He had once made an orchestral arrangement of the G minor Piano Quartet because he believed that with Brahms, the pianists – animated by the voluminous piano writing – always acted too coarsely so that in concert reality, the acoustic balance would get out of joint. “I wanted to hear everything,” said the father of modernism – who, of course, had performers like Igor Levit (mentally) go to school. We can be sure there will be no need for an orchestral arrangement this time…

In the case of the solo recital with the late piano pieces by Brahms, what the masters of modernism, above all Schoenberg, read from these intimate acoustic diary pages, to call Brahms “the progressive” could be heard. One can hear the intermezzo and character pieces of Opera 116 to 119 as resigned farewell music of a lifelong misanthrope or as the departure into an uncertain, but – let’s say with Hölderlin – “open” future.

Text by Wilhelm Sinkovicz.