When pianist Igor Levit streamed dozens of performances from his Berlin apartment during the first pandemic lockdown in 2020, he wore smart but casual clothes: close-fitting sweaters, hoodies over T-shirts. He invited you to a concert, yes, but also at his home; he offered, in environment and music, both elevation and comfort.
Carnegie Hall, Levit made clear from the moment he took the stage there on Thursday night, is also like home to him.
He appeared for his first solo recital at the gilded Stern Auditorium, wearing a dark, shabby collared shirt, unbuttoned to reveal a crew neck beneath, and black jeans. The impression, as usual with him, was of an artist who breaks free from formalities and frills to concentrate — with relaxation but also intense seriousness — on the music.
It was, as usual for him, an elegantly organized program. A Beethoven sonata ending in a variation suite led to the premiere of a new set of variations by Fred Hersch. A transcription of the prelude to Wagner’s opera “Tristan und Isolde” was followed without a break by the sonata in B minor by Liszt, Wagner’s champion and eventual father-in-law – which, like “Tristan”, ends in the key of B.
Levit built to a mighty climax in a grand account of Liszt’s sprawling sonata, projecting a sort of burning patience through the evening. His playing is fickle, but never improvised; there is always a sense of consultation, sometimes in tempo but always in approach, a palpable feeling that everything has been thought out. Still, the results feel confident and fiery, not merely or coolly analytical.
From its gently rocking opening – here a mistiness from which came silent clarity – Beethoven’s Sonata No. 30 in E (op. 109) was given a dreamier and ultimately more explosive rendition than on the recording that Levit released in 2013.
He has a gift for softness, forming soft, tender melodies that hurt without slacking off. In the third part, he built the final variation into furious, ecstatic runs. But the biggest impact came when those runs dropped, leaving the remnants of a barely audible trill as the trail back to the theme.
Hersch is best known as a jazz pianist, but he also writes balanced concert pieces. Although Levit has played some of his short pieces, this new Variations on a Folk Song is substantial, just over 20 minutes long.
The theme here is the plaintive “Shenandoah,” and Hersch gives a sober, subtle, respectful treatment to a song that, as he writes in a program note, “I learned as a child and has so much emotional resonance for me.” One of the 20 variations is somewhat skittish; another is somewhat robust; the most memorable sprinkles small tremor in the pauses of a mild piano line. But the mood is consistent and friendly.
Levit is one of classical music’s most politically outspoken figures, which is one of the reasons why the undisturbed sincerity of Hersch’s interpretation of “Shenandoah” is so striking. The song is thought to have roots in the trappers of the early American Midwest and their relationships with natives; it is a melody that touches the core of our country’s history, in all its complexity. But these unchanging variations are a musical vision of almost uninterrupted serenity and benevolence – especially curiously nostalgic.
The prelude to ‘Tristan’ here, in the arrangement by Zoltan Kocsis, was much more progressive, the opening almost surrealistically extended by Levit, so that its final landing on overflowing chords provided some of the shock this work presented to the first listeners. Kocsis’ arrangement ends in shadows, from which Levit’s Liszt emerged; a rough contemporary of “Tristan”, the sonata here was a stand-in for the opera.
It had the time-bending effect that “Tristan” often has, the contrasting sections seem to float side by side in a vast expanse. The sense of scale was memorable, as was Levit’s touch: dense low rumble; charcoal black stark chords; extremely soft passages that sounded candied, like snow glistening in moonlight.
The coherence of his conception of the evening extended to the encore: the actual end of ‘Tristan’, the ‘Liebestod’ in Liszt’s transcription. The climax – which Liszt achieves by simultaneously working the extreme ends of the piano, with a subtle epic effect – spoke for the recital as a whole, judiciously balanced yet exciting.
Performed on Thursday at Carnegie Hall, Manhattan.