Eight years ago, a young pianist made his New York debut with a cheeky program of Beethoven’s last sonatas.
Baby-faced and bow-tie, Igor Levit, then 27, took the stage in the intimate Board of Officers Room of Park Avenue Armory, proving that age is no barrier to interpreting some of the wisest and most challenging music in the keyboard repertoire. “An important new pianist has arrived,” wrote critic Anthony Tommasini of that evening.
Since then, each return has had the air of an important event: Bach’s “Goldberg” variations with the artist Marina Abramovic in the Armory’s drill hall, recitals with premieres at Carnegie Hall that began in the room-sized Zankel space before moving on to the great hall.
Levit, who lives in Berlin, hasn’t brought his craziest programming to the city — his essential, normative take on Ronald Stevenson’s “Passacaglia on DSCH” or his turn in Ferruccio Busoni’s extravagant piano concerto — but he’s graduated from newcomer to New York fixture. .
There remained one important debut, and that came Friday: his first appearance with the New York Philharmonic.
Now 35, more scruffy than slick and swapping his bow tie for a casual black shirt, he joined the Carnegie Orchestra in Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1. It was one of those nights—painful, just one performance—that you wondered or you had the Philharmonic found an artist to keep the speed dial for future seasons.
Holding up against the orchestra’s signature muscularity, Levit offered counterpoint in an expressive touch, an instinctive sense of form and a knack for navigating the nuances of a piece that has one foot in the Classical era and the other in the Romanticism of keeps his time.
Like Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20, also in D minor, the Brahms begin with a long orchestral introduction before the soloist’s soft singing entry – passion turns into a plea. The Philharmonic, led by Jaap van Zweden, the conductor, sounded more aggressive than fiery, and clear where another ensemble could have been grand.
Van Sweden’s reading was not necessarily considered problematic until it was embossed by the arrival of Levit, who delivered more tension with less force. His solos were comparable to sonatas in their intimacy and scope of expression (a sensibility that culminated with his encore, a sonorous but serene “Nun Komm’ der Heiden Heiland”, transcribed by Bach’s Busoni). On the keyboard he was able to evoke not only the thunder, especially in the climax of the first movement, but also the unsettling calm that can precede it and, as in the Adagio, something like the soft rising of clouds over it. follows.
Where soloist and orchestra were most aligned in the Rondo final; Levit articulated the first theme vividly and precisely, and the Philharmonic responded in kind. More than anywhere else, Van Zweden let the score speak for itself, building naturally to his cheerful D-major coda. The piano part rounds off several bars before the end, but Levit’s skill and stage presence were already well established by then—and the audience responded, the moment he bowed, with a swift standing ovation.
After the intermission, the Philharmonic would also experience its moment in Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. And if this work activates instruments like lights on a switchboard, then there was no dim light on Friday. With brass bright and heroic; wind eloquent and full of personality; and strings speaking as a single unit, this was an ensemble in excellent shape. Especially in the fourth movement “Intermezzo interrotto”, the players found a sensibility absent in the Brahms: lush in its folk-like melody, animated in the nightmarish parodic interruption and, in the return of the folk tune, movingly soft, with Dvorakian melancholy.
As he did in Brahms’ Rondo, Van Zweden led the Bartok Finale with a restraint that, after simply passing through the virtuosity of the breakneck tempo and fugal writing, gave way to an organic accumulation towards a sustained resonant final chord. It was a glimpse of an approach he doesn’t use often – but that would be welcome, like any performance Levit does with the Philharmonic in the future.
New York Philharmonic
Performed on Friday at Carnegie Hall, Manhattan.