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All the anthems of this world

After the strong impression that Igor Levit set at the Musikverein Festival 2022, the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna is dedicating a comprehensive portrait to him in 2022/23.

You could start in a banal way. In narrative A major: All about Igor Levit. But Levit hates the word “man”. He needs people around him, individuals with opinions and profile. He wants to address them by name. Just as he calls a spade a spade. Apart from that, this artist would not be able to be grasped with biographical facts anyway. And: He claims to have no memory of his childhood in Russia.

On the other hand, mother Elena, a pianist who lived with her husband and older daughter in Gorky (Nizhny Novgorod), Russia, remembers it well. Every now and then, when she had performances, she had to “lay down” baby Igor on the floor under the grand piano in the conductor’s room. When the son was two years old, he sang the melody of a Russian cartoon and accompanied himself on the piano. At the age of three he played a Bach invention. At the age of six, he gave the solo part of George Frideric Handel’s Concerto for Organ and Orchestra in F major. When Mom reminded him of his fingerwork, he replied, “Don’t look!”

Should we continue to try in the narrative of keys? F major? F is for freedom. The parents decided to leave everything behind in Russia in order to dare to try for a new life, for themselves and their children. Igor’s piano recording was sent to Hanover, where the family eventually settled down. In the capital of Lower Saxony, Igor was also able to test his youthful concept of freedom during puberty. Playing the piano was more important to him than school, he only practiced “as much as he needed” and otherwise “did all the nonsense,” according to his mother.

“I put the score on the piano and soaked it all up, the piano part and that of the orchestra at the same time.”

Igor Levit on his confrontation with “Tristan”

Within a short time, he spoke perfectly and without an accent in German. He never felt a longing for his old homeland. Looking back doesn’t suit him. Maybe that’s the reason for the lack of memory? His mother knew that even then Igor wanted more than “just” playing the piano. The young pianist won prizes, experienced various metamorphoses on the rocky road, which he was not always sure he wanted to continue. Among the setbacks was that as a 17-year-old, Grigory Sokolov “recommended” that he should learn another instrument. How about flute? Hélène Grimaud was the first of the “greats” to tell him: You are special. This referred to his piano playing. On his being an artist and a human being.

For years, Levit shared his personal worldview with countless followers via Twitter. The communication channel offered Levit new encounters, but he also recognized the dangerous illusion of closeness that the medium suggests and pressed the stop button again and again. His own, often very direct statements have repeatedly involved him in heated discourse.
Expressed in the cool, irreverent digital language, it would probably mean: User Levit has built in an extremely fast processor … He thinks many things at the same time, many things in advance. When it comes to finding his way back from an overly emotional concert atmosphere, he often quickly tells a Jewish joke. While others are thinking or laughing, he is already somewhere else entirely.

By the way, his memory allows him to always learn new music from the notes, reading. When he sits down at the grand piano, the text is already “saved”.

At the Musikhochschule in Hanover, where he once studied, Levit now teaches a small group of students. He does not forbid any student to have his own ideas and thoughts. At most, he asks: Why? What do you want to achieve with it? Where should the interpretation go? – It is difficult for him to talk about his own interpretations. “An interpretation, what is that supposed to be?” he asks, “I play as intuitively as I can …” He cherishes the “utopian idea of the completely free. As unattainable as this is, it is important to me.”

As in any artistic profession, it is important to reconcile fixed coordinates with the ideal goal of freedom. At the end of 2021, for example, we will be talking about the planned Vienna programme at the Musikverein in the 2022/23 season: In September 2022, Mozart’s C major concerto K. 467 is on the programme, Franz Welser-Möst will conduct “his” Cleveland Orchestra. Levit: “I have a very close relationship with Franz, he is a wonderful person of integrity and a great musician, we are very close to each other. I played Brahms, Henze and Rachmaninov – the ‘Paganini Rhapsody’ – with him, so we asked ourselves together what we would like to do now. It was Mozart! With Möst, I would also play a piano concerto consisting of all the hymns in the world, every note!” enthuses the pianist, who also likes to move “a little away from Beethoven” again with his programming after the Beethoven Year, his recording of all the sonatas and after a Beethoven podcast.

In the programming of Henze’s “Tristan”, on the other hand, it was Musikverein’s Artisitc Director Stephan Pauly who approached Levit about the composer. Levit: “I studied, performed and learned to love this piece years ago. The penetration of the score cost me a lot of energy during nine months, but in the end it became very valuable for me. I don’t play this ‘Tristan’ very often, so it’s a special pleasure for me to be offered it.” This is also a pleasure for the Musikverein, because Igor Levit will perform Henze’s “Tristan” at the Musikverein’s festival, which is inspired by a central object of the collection of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde – a spoon with which Beethoven took his medicine. The whole festival is programmatically inspired by this object: themes such as recovery, healing or change through medicine, through potions, love and magic potions play an important role. It is obvious that these are precisely motifs that permeate the Tristan material, be it in Gottfried von Straßburg, Wagner or Henze – and from this point of view, Igor Levit’s concert is a very central element of the festival at the Musikverein.
A solo piano recital will follow in May 2023. Among other things, Levit will perform a new work by Fred Hersch, “Variations on a Folk Song”, composed especially for him. Here, too, very personal relationships play a role. Levit: “Hersch is an idol for me, as a person and as a musician. One of the greatest jazz pianists in the world, whom I met by chance a few years ago in New York with his trio. This concert was a completely new musical experience for me. As an encore, he played Billy Joel’s song ‘So it goes’. With a naturalness, as if you were constantly exhaling with the piano playing. That made me cry. I asked Hersch if he would write it for me.” Hersch wrote it. Levit “doesn’t care” about crossing so-called “genre boundaries”.
In this solo program he also plays the prelude to Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”, in an arrangement by Zoltán Kocsis. Levit: “It ends with three individual notes in the bass. This is exactly how Liszt’s B minor Sonata begins, which I will then play.”

Levit loves such open or hidden associations. And he loves change, the unexpected. Part of his personality is to want to go through exactly those doors that are currently closed. The Coronavirus pandemic has not only struck a goal. Necessary organizational limitations and processes were partly torn apart in the Coronavirus lockdowns. Levit has reacted in his own way. More than fifty house concerts, which the pianist played from home in the spring of 2020 and streamed via mobile phone, have made him famous, even among young listeners, who are far removed from classical music. Hundreds of thousands of spectators followed him. His book, which he co-authored with Florian Zinnecker, is also called “House Concert”. When Levit was awarded the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in October 2020, it was also for his contributions “out of isolation”, for his playing, which made it possible to live together in lockdown across borders. And for his (socio-political) commitment.

We modulate into linguistic E major: the words commitment, energy, willfulness, but also ego and: Europeans pop up. Igor Levit emphasizes: he is a citizen, a European and a pianist. He likes to express his beliefs. Every now and then even before concerts, although he is aware that music alone cannot make a political difference. But it moves people and can thus influence a social climate, the artist is convinced. The “accusation” of selfishness is quickly dealt with: Of course, during a concert, the performer is the center of the world, the audience has to listen: “I’m paid for this. Does that sound self-centered? It is. In order to awaken feelings in people, as an artist you turn your innermost self outwards …”
Levit wants to convey the emotions that arise in him when he plays Beethoven, Mozart, Liszt or Henze. He always does this with outstanding intellect, velvety sensitivity and an enterprising mood to play. And in the full awareness that there will be no “normality” after the pandemic for a long time. Maybe you will never live the same way again. But what does “you” mean?

Text by Michaela Schlögl.

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