The 30-year-old Russian-born, Berlin-based pianist Igor Levit last Wednesday received the 2018 Gilmore Artist Award. Like the MacArthur “genius” awards, the $300,000 prize (given every four years) recognizes creativity, in this case, in keyboard artists.
That evening in New York, Levit played a short celebratory program on the radio station WQXR (archived on its website). He then caught one of the last flights out of the city before the bomb cyclone hit.
By Saturday night, Levit was at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa, where he gave his first full public recital since the Gilmore announcement. It was stupendous. From the very first note, he so radically changed the atmospheric pressure in the hall, it was as if he had packed a keyboard bomb cyclone in his suitcase.
A solo piano can get lost in this big theater and Levit is a small man. He hunched over the keyboard, beginning with a work for the left hand alone. From where I sat, in the boxes upstairs, he felt far away until he hit the first note and the sheer depth and resonant sovereignty of his tone engulfed a monumental space.
Three years ago, he made his Southern California debut in what, at the time, seemed like an out-of-the-way recital at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. It was modestly attended. It was, also, in every way, remarkable — in his curious but thoughtful programming, in his ever surprising interpretations of Beethoven, Bach, Prokofiev and a strange piano fantasy on Benjamin Britten’s opera “Peter Grimes.”
Since then, Levit has shown a penchant for making news at the piano and away from it. His three-CD set of variations by Bach (“Goldberg”), Beethoven (“Diabelli”) and Frederic Rzewski (“The People United Will Never be Defeated!”) won award after award and proved a bestseller. When he played the “Goldberg” Variations in New York, audience members were required to leave their cellphones behind and spend a half-hour in meditative silence with noise-canceling headphones before he began. When not on the ivories, his fingers tweet obsessively against Trump, a duty he feels is almost as sacred as practicing.
If there were still any doubt that Levit has the making of a great pianist, Saturday’s recital put that to utter rest. The program was somber; he has described it in an interview as a reaction to the death of a close friend. The pieces were mostly transcriptions by one composer of another, which is a special kind of remembrance.
The first was Brahms’ arrangement for the left hand alone of Bach’s Chaconne from the Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor. Unlike typical left-hand pieces intended to fool the listener into thinking both hands are at play, Brahms didn’t pretend a hand can do any more than expected.
Much of the work remains on the lower half of the keyboard. The harmonies are thickened and the colorations are muted. The illusion Levit created was that of bowing, so connected was one note to the next. In the meantime, his right hand found its own activities, sometimes holding onto the bench, other times hovering over the keys stopping just short of touching down. It was a phantom limb, and the awareness of its presence yet absence of its sound (along with a mind of its own) made the performance all the more moving.
Five preludes and fugues, from the 24 Shostakovich wrote, are original music, but Bach here remains in the background as a composer phantom. Neither Shostakovich’s counterpoint nor ideas have the inspired character of Bach’s keyboard preludes and fugues, but they come from a deep, dark, sonorous place that Levit revealed as only made possible by Bach’s inspiration.
Schumann’s so-called “Ghost Variations,” his last work for piano, is also based on an original theme, only in this heartbreaking case, the composer, his mind coming unglued, didn’t remember he had written it. He thought it came from an angel. He then thought he was possessed by devils.
This ethereal set of variations is seldom played perhaps because it is so little of this world. Levit’s levitating lyricism took care of that.
For the recital’s second half, Liszt looked at Wagner and Busoni at Liszt. In the former, Levit treated the “The Solemn March to the Holy Grail from ‘Parsifal’” transcription as though Liszt wrote it for a piano made of sonorous bells.
Busoni’s arrangement of Liszt’s half-hour monumental organ piece, Fantasy and Fugue on “Ad Nos, ad Salutarem Undam,” brought in a third composer, Meyerbeer, from whose opera “La Prophete” this Anabaptist chorale was derived.
Levit tore into the extravagant piano version as though he had somehow grown an extra limb. He took the opening section so fast that too much detail was lost, but that only made Liszt’s overheated imagination come across as all the more fantastic. The slow central section brought back the angels and let them stay around for a heavenly long while. The fugue took all the oxygen out of the room.
At the Wallis three years ago, Levit promised that he represented the future of pianism. Saturday at Segerstrom, the future arrived.