Igor Levit and his Beethoven-project: “I do not feel like a servant, but I do not feel like anybody’s master either.”
On 17 December 2019 Ludwig van Beethoven will celebrate his 250th birthday. An occasion this big calls for a big party, so that is what we will get. There will be an abundance of concerts, recitals and recordings to choose from. Of all the projects we are about to be inundated with, there is one that appeals to me personally the most: the recording of all of his piano sonatas by Igor Levit.
What do we know about Igor Levit? He was born in 1987 in Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod) in Russia. He started piano lessons at the age of three and had already achieved enormous successes as a child. In 1995 the Levit family left for Germany, where he graduated from the Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien Hannover in 2009. I heard him for the first time on recordings from the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel Aviv in 2005. At that time he was the youngest participant ever and he won the second prize, the chamber music prize, the audience prize and the prize for the best performance of a contemporary work. He looked timid and shy, but as an audience member you were not only enchanted by him but also drawn to him.
Levit plays Beethoven in Tel Aviv:
I decided to follow this young artist as much as possible. When Sony contracted him and they brought out an album with Beethoven’s late piano sonatas, I was extremely pleased! It was a huge gamble for Sony. Imagine: when you’re in your twenties choosing Beethoven’s last five piano sonatas for your debut album! You really need to have guts to do that. But it could also be conceived as arrogant. Didn’t most pianists have to wait until they reached a certain age to try their hand at the last sonatas?
The result was overwhelming. The album won several prizes in 2014, including an ECHO Klassik, when that prize was still taken seriously. And the prizes continued: in October 2015 his CD with works by Bach, Beethoven and Rzewsky was chosen as Recording of the Year at the 2016 Gramophone Classical Music Awards. In 2018 Levit received the prestigious Gilmore Award and was named the Royal Philharmonic Society’s ‘Instrumentalist of the Year’.
Levit’s interpretations of Beethoven are quite idiosyncratic, that’s true, but also greatly exciting! That is why Levit is so outspoken about the role of the interpreter. A quote from the pianist’s passionate interview with the Neue Zürcher Zeitung:
“So you are against the widespread ideal that the interpreter is first and foremost the servant of the score?
I do not feel like a servant, but I do not feel like anybody’s master either. For me, the question is not: what would we be without the composers, but instead: what would the composers be without us? The interpretation is my personal reaction to the information I receive through the notes. But this information is sometimes so full of uncertainties that I have to think about it carefully. A performance never works one-on-one. Beethoven’s case is extra complicated because he tried to escape from his time in order to create something different, something new.”
Igor Levit about ‘the project’:
“For me, this recording is the conclusion of the past fifteen years. It started with my ‘encounter’ with the Diabelli Variations when I was seventeen years old, something that changed my life and that actually continues until now, because I live with his music every day. With Beethoven’s sonatas, but also with Beethoven himself and with how all this has influenced the world in which I live and myself. Everything together led to this recording. What began in 2013 with the recording of Beethoven’s last five sonatas, I can now conclude. It fills me with great happiness and at the same time it feels like a new beginning. “
I can only add that Igor Levits’ vision of Beethoven has also changed my world. Raised with Gulda, Kempff, Schnabel and Barenboim – all greats that are still at the top of my list – I have suddenly discovered a totally new vision. No, in interpretation there are no absolute truths. Just listen to the ‘Adagio sostenuto’ from the Monscheinsonate. You rarely hear it so sweet, so tender, but at the same time not ‘weak.’ For me it felt like hearing the sonata for the first time in my life.
On Sunday 9 February 2020 Levit will make his long-awaited debut in the Master Pianists series at the Concertgebouw. It will be a very special recital, because he will, of course, not only play Beethoven’s last two sonatas, but also an arrangement for piano of the Adagio from Mahler’s Symphony No. 10. Something to really look forward to!
Beethoven – Piano Sonatas (Complete)
Igor Levit – Piano
Sony Classical, CD 19075843182 (9cd’s)