Pianist Igor Levit — now bearded — dazzled with taut intimacy in his Washington Performing Arts recital. (Gregor Hohenberg) By Anne Midgette By Anne Midgette Classical music critic/The Classical Beat February 12 at 3:06 PM Follow @classicalbeat
Classical music can entertain, or it can uplift, and not everyone wants to engage with it on a deeper level. But for those who did, pianist Igor Levit offered a superb afternoon of music-
making at the UDC Theater of the Arts on Saturday.
Levit was scheduled to appear at the Washington Performing Arts Hayes piano series two years ago, when he still qualified as a rising star. Since then, several recordings have placed him firmly on the map, particularly his memorable juxtaposition of three mighty sets of variations: Bach’s Goldbergs, Rzewski’s “The People United Will Never Be Defeated”! and Beethoven’s Diabellis. Saturday’s program offered a similar, but shorter, tripartite grouping: three parts of Shostakovich’s wonderful Preludes and Fugues; Rzewski’s “Dreams, Part II” and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations to finish.
Levit, Russian-born and German-raised, projects the air of a Dostoevsky hero, pale and slender and bearded; and he approaches music with some of the same inner fanaticism — not in the sense of a mad onslaught on the keys, but in the sense of a total devotion so that the music emerges burned free of worldly concerns, in a kind of spiritual halo. Over the course of 2½ hours of heartfelt music — which flew by more rapidly than many recitals half as long — he offered world upon world of sound, offered with digital-quality clarity and detail and infused with analog warmth.
The delicacy, legato and individuality of the three Shostakovich preludes and fugues — Nos. 10, 4 and 12 — set the stage for what for me was the highlight of a rich afternoon, the Rzewski piece, which the composer dedicated to Levit. In introductory remarks to the audience (which he gave with such appealing directness that the crowd was further won over), Levit posed a tacit challenge that he proceeded to meet: “This man,” he said of Rzewski, “writes incredibly humane music, which is about nothing but us.” He then showed the advantages of having a meaningful relationship with a composer who can tailor music to a pianist’s strengths. Rzewski’s piece, inspired by things from Akira Kurosawa’s film “Dreams” to Debussy’s preludes to Woody Guthrie, had all of the detail and emotional variety and virtuosic difficulty that Levit seems particularly equipped to transmit — including an improvisatory section that Levit executed with the same heartfelt directness that characterized even the most virtuosic passages.
I may never hear a better performance of the Diabelli Variations, one that carries me further into the depths and potential of this splendidly wrought music. But while stylistically impeccable, it seemed to speak the same language as the Rzewski: one that communicates a wealth of meaning without artifice, as spoken by a truly gifted artist.