Pianist Igor Levit is one of the heroes of lockdown – a “key worker”(!), if you will, who provided comfort and distraction in those anxious, early days of the pandemic. At a time when the concert halls of the world were shuttered and silent, Levit gave hauskonzerts from his home in Berlin, broadcast live on Twitter. Each day he would announce a programme and a time to tune in. He streamed more than 50 concerts, performing on a 1920s Steinway B that had once belonged to the Swiss pianist Edwin Fischer. He dressed casually and gave a brief introduction to each performance in German and English – no need for the formality and etiquette of the Wigmore Hall here. He played Bach and Schubert (a tear-jerkingly wonderful D960), Beethoven and Feldman, and people tuned in from around the world. His daily house concerts provided an anchor in a troubled sea.

Maybe for the first time do I understand what it means to speak of music as something life-keeping. It really keeps me alive. . . . I don’t care if it’s wrong or right, whatever B.S. that means….” said Levit in an interview with Alex Ross of The New Yorker. His house concerts challenged our notions of what a concert really is, reminding us that we don’t have to sit in stiff, reverential silence in plush red velvet seats to feel the power of the collective shared experience of music. Separated by a global pandemic, confined to our homes, music connected us, delighted, soothed and comforted us.

Levit’s new album, Encounter, which comes just two years after the release of ‘Life’ (my album of the year in 2018), confirms the spirit of his hauskonzerts. Here is music by Bach-Busoni, Brahms-Busoni, Reger and Feldman that seeks to comfort the soul and provide inner strength while expressing a desire for encounters and togetherness in a world fractured by a global pandemic. Like ‘Life’, it is another very personal album for Levit, the repertoire carefully chosen: these are “works in which all questions about love and death, loneliness and the possibility of real love for others are examined“. The pieces on ‘Encounter’ were those which drew especially positive comments from Levit’s online audience.

The entire album has a processional quality, leading the listener to the hushed serenity of Morton Feldman’s final work for piano – and the final work on this disc – Palais de Mari, a 28-minute contemplation, meditation, or what you will, of exquisitely-placed notes and piquant chords that fall upon the ears and mind like the softest of summer showers. It works in the same way as Bill Evans’ ‘Peace Piece’ did on ‘Life’ – the sentiments of the music match the intensity and spirituality of the works that precede it, yet it also provides a contrast in its delicate minimalist textures and hauntingly spacious pauses.

No one questions the spirituality of J S Bach, but Levit thankfully steers away from an overly-reverential approach which colours so many performances of his music. Alert to the contrasting characters of the Chorale Preludes, elegantly and occasionally flamboyantly transcribed for solo piano by Ferruccio Busoni, Levit finds vibrancy and immediacy, authority, solemnity and joy, and draws on the full range of the piano’s sound and resonance to highlight the voices and layers of this music.

Brahms’ six Chorale Preludes, also transcribed by Busoni, are rarely-heard as a set, and Levit successfully sustains the devotional, introspective nature of these pieces, almost to the point of intimacy. Reger’s transcriptions of Brahms’s Vier ernste Gesänge (Four Serious Songs) are similarly pensive, and Levit’s sensitivity of touch and musical imagination save them from becoming overwhelmed by the richness of their textures.

Reger’s Nachtlied, a sacred motet for unaccompanied mixed choir, provides the bridge to Feldman in this transcription for piano by Julian Becker. Its textures are more transparent, its mood gentler and more prayer-like, settling the listener in for Feldman’s music, which gradually retreats into its own world with a sense of closure and inner calm.

The album was recorded in May at Berlin’s Jesus-Christus-Kirche and is best heard in one sitting, as if as a recital – because here Levit manages to create a very palpable, highly concentrated musical presence throughout the recording.

‘Encounter’ is available on the Sony Classical label and via streaming services

primafaciepfcd061……make it Kenneth Hamilton’s new disc ‘Liszt, Rachmaninov, Busoni: Back to Bach – Tributes and Transcriptions’

Liszt- Fantasy and Fugue on the theme BACH. Variations on a Theme of Bach ‘Weinen, Klangen, Sorgen, Zagen’.

Bach/Rachmaninov – Suite from the Violin Partita in E Major.

Bach/Busoni – Choral Prelude ‘Nun komm der Heiden Heiland’. Chaconne from Violin Partita in D Minor. Chorale Prelude ‘Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ’.

PRIMAFACIE 061

This rewarding new disc of the music of Bach viewed through the lens of three great Romantic composer-pianists forms the first in the Prima Facie labe’s Heritage Series, which aims to shine a new light on familiar repertoire

Kenneth Hamilton’s imaginative playing is clearly founded on a passion for this repertoire combined with his extensive study of nineteenth-century pianism*, which includes historic recordings by Rachmaninov and Busoni themselves and the reminiscences of pupils of Franz Liszt. Thus one has the sense of very “informed” playing (though it never becomes overly intellectual nor dry). Thus the Bach-Busoni Chaconne features the revisions from Busoni’s own piano roll of the work, while the heartfelt performance of Liszt’s Variations on “Weinen, Klagen” reflects Liszt’s own performance advice, as well as Hamilton’s assertion that the work is an emotional tribute to Liszt’s children Daniel and Blandine, whose tragically early deaths are depicted in the music. But like Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (Songs of the Death of Children), which this work seems to foreshadow, it ends on a note of hope for future redemption.

The two works by Liszt bookend this satisfying recital disc. Virtuosic in scale, the Fantasy and Fugue on the theme BACH and Variations on a Theme of Bach ‘Weinen, Klangen, Sorgen, Zagen’ pay tribute to the genius of Bach through Liszt’s distinctive pianistic voice, but these are not show pieces. Here we find Liszt at his most serious and ruminative. and Hamilton’s clean, sensitively-nuanced playing reveals the dramatic contrasts in this music from quiet introspection to impassioned gestures.

This contrasts well with the works by Busoni which are played with warmth and refinement, with clear attention to the sophisticated harmonic details and voicing. The Bach/Busoni Chaconne, too often ponderous in the hands of the less skilled, is here grandly expansive, but never heavy. The interior details and individual voices have a lucid clarity which brings the music to life with ever-increasing drama.

Meanwhile, Rachmaninov’s glittering transcription of the Violin Partita in E major provides a joyful and witty interlude. In a way, this is the closest of all the transcriptions presented here to Bach’s original, but infused with Rachmaninov’s inventive, muscular textures (the Prelude has contrapuntal elements redolent of the Etudes-Tableaux) and piquant harmonies.

This is a splendid tribute not only to J S Bach but to the ingenuity and superlative pianism of three great composer-pianists of the golden age, pianism which is matched by Hamilton’s own.

Highly recommended

 


*Hamilton, Kenneth: After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance (Oxford: OUP, 2008)

 

Kenneth Hamilton is a concert pianist, writer and broadcaster, and former student and colleague of Ronald Stevenson.