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

“The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.”

This quote from Mozart seems particularly apt for Steven Osborne’s concert at Milton Court which featured music by Morton Feldman and George Crumb, two radical American composers with a special interest in exploring the piano’s expressive qualities as much through the spaces between the notes as in the notes themselves. Eschewing melody as the main vehicle for expression in their music, both Feldman and Crumb offer the listener a special soundworld infused with simplicity and stillness. Osborne’s interest in stillness in music combined with his ability to produce magical kaleidoscopic shadings, as evidenced by his very fine performances and recording of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jèsus, make him the perfect performer for this programme.

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(Photo Benjamin Ealovega)

Silence in music, any music, is very important. Pauses and silences provide “punctuation marks” and create ebb and flow, just as in speech. Silences also create drama and set up expectations in the minds of the listener, while stillness and quietness in music allow the listener to be drawn in to create a special, sometimes very intense connection with the performer. In the pre-concert talk, Osborne talked of how, as a child, he liked to experiment at the piano to see how quietly he could play, fascinated by the tactile experience of producing very soft sounds. He described how the simplicity and stillness of Feldman’s music in particular – music which is sometimes merely a handful of notes or a few carefully chosen chords with no clear narrative nor organic development – allows the listener to engage with the music “in the moment”, with a mindfulness akin to meditation without the need to conceptualise nor admire it as an “art-object”.

Read my full review here

Meet the Artist……Steven Osborne

Pianist Ivan Ilic has already featured music by American minimalist composer Morton Feldman on his previous disc The Transcendentalist. His new disc (released 16 October) is devoted to a single work by Feldman, ‘For Bunita Marcus’, dedicated Feldman’s student who studied with him from 1975-1981. For seven years until Feldman’s death in 1987, he and Bunita Marcus were inseparable (though she refused his marriage proposal), composing side by side and sharing ideas.

The work typifies Feldman’s style: comprising small clusters and units of notes, mainly consisting of 3/8, 5/16 and 2/2 bars – tiny ideas which together form a vast and musical landscape, it is curiously absorbing music. What it lacks in texture, it makes up for in its meticulously placed sounds, and its intensity comes from its repetitive and reiterative qualities, with figures varied but not developed.

As Feldman himself said of this music “It can only work if you go along with the material and see how it is turning out.” There is an exploratory quality to Ilic’s playing, a sense of the music being wrought in the moment, spontaneous and unprepared. His touch is assured yet sensitive. Sounds chime, resonate and glow, and the work’s 22 sections unfold with a subtle and graceful expansiveness.

The disc comes with comprehensive notes to guide the listener through the work, but you, like me, may prefer to simply allow the sounds to drift over you.

‘For Bunita Marcus’ (1985) is released on the French label Paraty, distributed worldwide by Harmonia Mundi. The album is the final installment in Ivan’s Morton Feldman Trilogy, alongside the CD The Transcendentalist (2014) and the Art Book/CD/DVD Detours Which Have To Be Investigated (2014).  

Further information here

Meet the Artist……Ivan Ilic