ARTICLES & INTERVIEWS
Jun 1, 2023
On a mild fall afternoon in 2019 the pedestrian zone of Oldenburg in northern Germany was littered with motionless bodies, one of dozens such “die-ins” staged by climate activists that year. In some cities, these actions were met with indifference and scorn, but here a growing number of passers-by paused, spellbound. Seated at an upright piano pasted with flyers, a bearded young man was playing an arrangement of the Chaconne from J.S. Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2. As he unspooled one ruminative variation after another, the music created a momentary community of protesters and observers.
The man at the upright was Igor Levit, one of the most acclaimed pianists of his generation and a fixture on the world’s premier concert stages. For him, appearances like the one in Oldenburg are just as much part of his life making music—and making art matter. “I would never say music creates togetherness, and by that alone it saves the world,” Levit, now 36, said in an interview ahead of his residency this month with the San Francisco Symphony. “But its gift is to bring people together and to remind them of what it means to be a human being. Still, it is on us, the people, to then draw consequences and act out of that togetherness.”
Levit, who was born in Russia and moved to Germany as a child, is one of the most publicly opinionated artists in classical music. An outspoken opponent of bigotry and climate complacency, he has campaigned on behalf of Germany’s Green Party, prefaced concerts with political statements, and publicly sparred with members of the far right. On his website, he introduces himself with just three words: Citizen. European. Pianist.
To Levit, the integration of his political and artistic activities is as self-evident as his embrace of old and new musical forms. It has also built him a broad following: the live-streamed house concerts he played from the isolation of his Berlin apartment in 2020 drew tens of thousands of viewers. His recording catalogue includes an exhilarating survey of the complete Beethoven sonatas; a bracing account of Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated, a monumental set of variations on a revolutionary song; as well as illuminating transcriptions of seminal works for orchestra, including selections from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde (part of his June 27 Great Performers Series recital) and the Adagio from Mahler’s Symphony No. 10.
In the 19th century, such transcriptions were a means to disseminate new compositions to a public of musically literate amateurs. In Levit’s hands, they become shimmering sublimations that highlight the psychological essence of a piece, qualities like the erotic ambivalence of Tristan or Mahler’s neurosis.
“It’s always about what can be gained,” Levit said of transcriptions. Condensed into the color palette of a single piano, “a piece can sound very different, it can show new aspects. It’s never an attempt to copy the orchestra. Call me an annoying realist, but I know that I play the piano. All I think about is: which music do I want to surround myself with?”
Little wonder that one of Levit’s musical heroes is Ferruccio Busoni, who was an omnivorous transcriber as well as an influential theorist and the composer of one of the most flamboyantly difficult concertos written for piano. (Levit’s performances this month, under the baton of Esa-Pekka Salonen, mark the first time the San Francisco Symphony has played the work.) Reading Busoni, Levit said, he felt a kinship with the early 20th-century virtuoso.
For Busoni, Levit said, “music is limitless, but notation is limited. And he’s basically saying that the job of the creator is to set the music free again. That means making your own choices, because how could you possibly believe that what you hold in your hands, the dots and the lines on paper, could ever be the last word? This idea of empowering individuality is something that strongly resonates with me.”
Levit’s preoccupation with authenticity goes back to his childhood. The first musical obsessions he can remember—he has no recollections of his early years in Russia—in many ways set the tone: Beethoven’s defiantly humanist Missa solemnis and Eminem’s autobiographical and gleefully cocky The Slim Shady LP.
That album became “a kind of musical Bible” for the 12-year-old budding pianist. “I was listening to it day and night,” Levit said. In part, it was the storytelling that drew him in. But more than that, Levit said, he responded to the confidence with which Eminem mined his life for his art, “the whole idea of saying: ‘I am.’”
Another touchstone of his is Miles Davis, who said that “sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.” For a classical pianist, who makes his living playing the music by others, this can seem like a particular challenge. Still, Levit said, “no one but me pushes down the keys of the piano. No one but me makes the piece sound. And so without me, in this particular moment, in this particular space, there is no piece. So my goal is not to sound like Beethoven. What I do all day long is try to understand, why did Beethoven decide to write a piece this way and not the other way? But at the end of the day, I’m the one who plays it, not him. So, the goal is kind of to have it both ways.”
In fact, the musical form Levit is perhaps most closely associated with is a testament to having it multiple ways: his repertoire teems with variations. He released a box set comprising Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and the Rzewski People Variations, and he has issued recordings of Ronald Stevenson’s Passacaglia on DSCH and the Bach Chaconne, which he played at the climate protest in Oldenburg.
“I love looking at a problem or theme from all kinds of perspectives,” Levit said. “It’s definitely the diversity of thinking and imagination that really strikes me.” As a political activist, too, he said he seeks the engagement with different viewpoints.
“If I go into a conversation with you” Levit said, “my goal and my wish is simple: convince me! And if you don’t manage to convince me, I may disagree, but I’m cool with you. So, this limitlessness in perspectives is something that I try to live, something that has become very dear to me. And the musical form, which is closest to me, is the variation.”
CORINNA DA FONSECA-WOLLHEIM is a writer and the founder of Beginner’s Ear.