Back in December, pianist Igor Levit took on J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations at Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory for a run of seven concerts presented in collaboration with performance artist Marina Abramovic. In addition to seating in the round, sunset lighting, and a slowly rotating stage, what made these Bach recitals unique was the fact that each audience member was required to leave all personal electronic devices in an individually assigned locker, then to sit for a full thirty minutes before the show wearing noise-canceling headphones, clearing the mind to fully engage with the music. While no one attending Levit’s UMS debut at Hill Auditorium on February 6 will be asked to do either of these things, sitting still with your eyes closed would be an excellent way to prepare for what promises to be an unusually rewarding experience.
Levit was born in 1987 about 250 miles east of Moscow in Gorky, just a few years before the Soviet Union collapsed and the city resumed its historic name, Nizhny Novgorod; he has lived in Hanover, Germany, since moving there with his family in 1995. Over the past couple of years, he has garnered unqualified praise for recordings and public performances of exceptional clarity and depth. Watching Levit at the piano can be a completely absorbing experience. During slowly paced passages, you might find yourself marveling with him at the spaces between the tones, as silence becomes a golden emanation in the air surrounding the man and his instrument.
Levit will inaugurate his first Ann Arbor appearance with J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 4, a work originally conceived and designed for the harpsichord, followed by Schubert’s colorful set of miniatures, the Six moments musicaux. From there he will plunge headlong into Beethoven’s Sonata No. 17, that eddying whirlpool born of impermanence, and Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7, during which conventional tropes are mischievously exaggerated and even distorted. This work, composed in war-torn Russia in 1944, also contains one of Prokofiev’s loveliest slow movements, rooted in the romantic melancholia of Robert Schumann.
Levit, an astonishingly skilled interpreter of classical piano repertoire, is equally adept at navigating modern works of daunting cerebral complexity. Here is living proof that established musical traditions do not exist in some ossified state like prehistoric insects suspended in Baltic amber. Their durable intuitive logic is clearly detectable in shape-shifting works of more recent vintage. Levit has explored that continuum since the age of fifteen, when he chose as his mentor composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski, a respected associate of two pioneers of sky’s-the-limit creativity, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Anthony Braxton. Levit has proudly acknowledged Rzewski’s influence by releasing a three-CD set combining Bach’s Goldberg and Beethoven’s Diabelli variations with Rzewski’s variations on the Chilean socialist anthem “The People United Will Never Be Defeated.” Levit’s highly evolved combination of versatility and virtuosity is refreshing and encouraging. The opportunity to see him perform in person is too good to pass up.