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Pianist Igor Levit Is on a Mission

September 5, 2020

Long before the pandemic hit, Igor Levit was a musician on a mission. An avid practitioner of social media, the 33-year-old German-Russian pianist has long used his popular online platform as well as public appearances to advance progressive views on social justice, climate change, and other issues.

Levit’s passion is not only political but deeply personal. In an extraordinary 2018 recital at the Herbst Theatre, presented by San Francisco Performances, the pianist paid moving musical tribute to a close friend who had died. His concurrent CD Life became a lasting memorial. Here, unmistakably, is an artist who thinks, feels, and acts intensely.

In March of this year, when the coronavirus stilled concert halls, Levit wasn’t about to stay silent. He webcast a series of over 50 nightly performances from his Berlin apartment. A virtual audience responded with gratitude and fellow feeling from around the globe. The German president invited him to transmit one night from the regal Schloss Bellevue. Writing to The New Yorker’s Alex Ross, Levit remarked that while he is often in tears in these dark times, “The existential must of music-making really becomes bigger and bigger by the minute.”

That sense of urgency infuses Encounter, Levit’s new two-CD release from Sony Classical. In his stirringly emotional performances of Bach and Brahms chorale preludes and Morton Feldman’s magisterially spare Palais de Mari, Levit stakes out a musical universe deeply attuned to the collective moment. Fury and grief, agitation and luminescence arrive by turns, overlaid in shimmering, sometimes disturbing waves. Again and again, in often familiar territory, the listener awakes to something new, unforeseen, and revivifying.

The first disc is given over to the chorale preludes, 10 by Bach and six by Brahms. All are arranged by Busoni, a composer whose famously thorny piano concerto Levit has championed. Levit’s fearless artistry and intelligence knows no boundaries.

Encounter is an apt term for the way Levit plays Bach. Nothing is taken for granted, nothing delivered with the austere reverence that can sometimes coat the composer in a marmoreal glaze. Levit signals his intention to make the chorale preludes live and breathe right from the start. “Komm, Gott Schöpfer, Heiliger Geist” (Come, God Creator, Holy Ghost) gets an exultant hoist, full of light and propulsion. The famous “Wachet Auf” (Awake) follows immediately, executed here with an almost childlike limpidity and innocence.

And so it goes. “Ich ruf’ zu dir” (I call to thee) ripples with light and shadow, anchored to the rumbling deep bass line. In a blast-furnace account of “Herr Gott, nun schleuss den Himmel auf” (Lord God, now open heaven's gate) Levit makes his piano sound like a full-stops-out pipe organ. The cycle closes with a seraphic, subtly expansive “Jesus Christus, unser Heiland” (Jesus Christ our Savior).

Levit takes a different approach with the Brahms chorale preludes, opening the weave to wind the inner voices together, muse on shifting harmonies and lean into chord patterns. The effect is patient, meditative, sometimes bittersweet, occasionally bombastic. (Levit’s drive to push the envelope can do some damage now and then.)

The second disc opens with a Max Reger adaptation of Four Serious Songs by Brahms. Levit brings his full expressive range to these short pieces, with emphatic rolled chords giving way to pensive introspection and ringing declarations. Reger’s own “Nachtlied” (Nightsong) conjures a tender echo of Bach.

Running nearly a half-hour, Feldman’s Palais is a late minimalist marvel composed a year before his death. Levit gives its widely spaced notes, haunting intervals and brimming silences a sense of wonder. At times he seems to be creating a kind of aural ventriloquism — of softly plucked strings or a gamelan’s reverberant glimmer.

How far, in one sense, this seems from the refulgent Bach chorale preludes that open Levit’s Encounter. And yet, in this globally minded pianist’s connective vision, his musical light shines and reflects in unexpected ways. Levit makes just about anything he touches brighter, keener, and more vividly present.

Steven Winn is a San Francisco based free-lance writer and critic and frequent City Arts & Lectures interviewer. His work has appeared in Art News, California, Humanities, Manhattan, Symphony Magazine and The San Francisco Chronicle.