Bach / Beethoven / Rzewski – Igor Levit Attacks Goldberg and Diabelli – Wow!

Wunderkinder?

The classical music scene, like all other entertainment industries, likes hypes. Quite often those are a bit fabricated, and at a closer look tend to disappoint (sorry, Lang Lang), or their presence in the limelight is very short-lived just to be replaced by the next wunderkind. And I’m afraid, the big classical labels have their share of the blame (well, they have to sell their stuff, too).

That said, in this long list of young stars and starlets, every once in a while you’ll find a true artist. I’ve already written about Rafal Blechacz and Benjamin Grosvenor, both of which will end up in the pantheon of the best pianists of the 21st century, I’m willing to be a lot of money on that.

Igor Levit

My third name in the triumvirate of 21st century giants is Igor Levit. I’ve already praised his outstanding partitas here, and his first album, the late Beethoven sonatas, is also exceptional.

Levit was born in Russia but moved at the age of 8 to Hanover, Germany, where he lives to this day (why somebody would stay in what is probably the dullest city in Germany escapes me, but at least nothing there distracts him from practicing, which is good for the rest of us).

He has now released his third album, a massive 3 CD affair (or what used to be 3 CDs in the pre-download area). It takes some guts to start your recording career on nothing less than Beethoven’s late piano sonatas at the age of 26. Well, with his latest release, he doesn’t attack only one, but two of the absolute summits of the piano repertoire, the Goldberg AND the Diabelli variations. So will he lose his breath in this Himalaya?

Goldberg and Diabelli

Igor Levit Bach Goldberg Variations Beethoven Diabelli Variations Rzewski The People United Will Never Be Defeated Sony 2015

I’ve already shared my preference on both (see here for the Goldberg’s and here for the Diabelli’s), so how does Levit compare to Hantaï, Schiff, and Staier?

Well, let’s make it quick: this is yet another outstanding album. His Goldberg’s are really among the best I’ve ever heard on modern piano. All you Gould lovers out there, check this out! Really. You may miss Glenn’s humming, but honestly there is nothing else to miss here.

Levit plays with astonishing precision, but at the same time you just hear every note is just there, just at the right moment, with just the right weight. This immediately becomes my go-to version on modern piano (although I still prefer harpsichord here, so will remain loyal to Hantaï nevertheless).

Now to the Diabelli’s. I’ve already given my preference with Schiff’s ECM recording and Staier on pianoforte. And now I immediately have to add this recording to this list.

Again, what wins me over immediately is the precision and timing. And don’t get me wrong, just because I mention precision so much doesn’t mean this is heartless robot playing. To the contrary.

Just to quote some examples: On the slow variations 14 and 20, time just seems to stop. For a moment you are in a different time and space. Absolutely absorbing.

Or take variation 21. moving from fast to slow all the time, which on some recordings can make you feel a bit sea-sick. Not here, any tempo change just comes along completely natural.

You get a glimpse of his virtuosity in the breathtaking speed of variation 27. But Levit is anything but your classical virtuoso, he uses his outstanding technical capabilities only for purely musical purposes, never to impress (although I’d be very curious to hear Levit eventually moving away from Bach and Beethoven and attack Rachmaninov et al, unfortunately he’s already said he doesn’t want to play Chopin as Blechacz does it so well).

I’m not going to comment on the Rzewski, I’m just completely incompetent to add any meaningful comment to any music that goes beyond traditional tonality. That said, this piece has enough moments that make me want to listen to more, which is more that I can say about a lot of other 21st century classical music.

So, overall, yet another absolute must have album from Levit.

My rating: 5 stars

UPDATE Nov 6, 2015: Gramophone agrees with me and gives this album a “Recording of the Month”.

UPDATE Nov 29: My other preferred classical review magazine, Classica, is also pleased and gives this recording 4 stars.

You can get it here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

25 thoughts on “Bach / Beethoven / Rzewski – Igor Levit Attacks Goldberg and Diabelli – Wow!

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  3. Bla

    Hannover, “the dullest city”. How good you must feel that you managed to get that REALLY valuable remark into your review!

    Please elaborate! What makes you come to that conclusion? Or might it just be prejudice?

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  5. Chris

    I wouldn’t even consider comparing Gould to Levit. Gould’s Goldberg (the ’81 version in particular) has soul, as odd as that might seem to some–perhaps you, considering we’re talking about J.S. Bach. I agree that Levit plays a meticulous transparent–in terms of notes, Bach, but I would call his interpretation as somewhat odd (spacey? floaty?) and not terribly engaging.

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    1. Musicophile Post author

      Thanks for your feedback. I appreciate Gould’s very individualistic approach to the Goldbergs (I have both 1955 and 81 plus several unofficial recordings from Radio broadcasts etc.), but I very much like this transparency that Levit is giving to the music.

      This transparency lets you go much deeper into the structure of the music, appreciate all the nuances and intricacies for example in no. 5, an extremely fast variation, where the Steinway sounds nearly like a Harpsichord.

      Therefore, this entire approach works extremely well for me, but I understand why if you’re looking for a different approach you may find this version unengaging.

      Probably personal ideal for the Goldbergs is still the Harpsichord and I’m still not 100% comfortable with listening to this on the piano.

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      1. Chris

        I think you’re dreaming just a little when you compare Hantai and Levit, at least when it comes to the 5th variation. Hantai’s version is much slower, something like 25% and doesn’t sound at all like Levit’s piano version–or to put it a bit more relevantly Levit’s piano doesn’t sound at all harpsichord like. But I’ll give it to you, Levit’s version is truly clean and transparent. Maybe his style works better for me on the fast variations. I should compare the Gould early versions to Levit’s. (Of course Levit has the advantage of much better sound).

        BTW, I’m not looking for a different approach. I just love the Goldberg and the Gould ’81 version struck me as outstanding both for its “soul” and its corresponding transparency. Yes transparency. I remember being struck how I felt like I was hearing new notes and not missing any–that I was easily able to listen to the different lines simultaneously.

        I thought you might be harpsichord biased. 🙂 I’m certainly piano biased. I wonder what Bach would have done differently (if anything) if he’d had a true modern piano at his disposal. Apparently he didn’t find the pianos of his day palatable until about 3 years before his death. The Goldbergs were published about 16 years earlier.

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      2. Musicophile Post author

        I’m pretty sure Bach would have approved of playing on a modern piano, given how much he adapted music from one instrument to another. I’m pretty sure the sound of a modern piano would have triggered the composition to be different.

        Now I’m curious: what do you think of my other modern piano favorite: Perahia?

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  6. Chris

    Perahia, ah, he’s second on my list. In other words I really like his Goldberg. It stood out from many others I’ve heard.
    I also may get to like the Levit more over time. His take intrigues me and his playing is so fine. It may just take me a while to adjust, because his take seems so different, at least in the early variations.

    As to Bach, I wonder if he ever sort of forgot that he was writing for a non-dynamic instrument when he wrote for the harpsichord (after all most if not all other instruments can range dynamically from pppp to ffff).

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    1. Musicophile Post author

      I don’t mind the dynamic changes. If you use a modern instrument you may as well use it to its full extent.

      I’m curious to hear what you think about the Diabellis?

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      1. Chris

        I’ve not really gotten into the Diabellis, which is odd because I don’t know if I like any classical piano works better than Beethoven’s. Maybe I’ve not heard a great recording–I haven’t listened to these yet.

        One thing I find tedious in some classical music is the endless similar sounding repetition. Is that the case with the Diabellis–I have that sense, which however I may be confusing with all the Mozart non-sonata piano solo work.

        And speaking of piano works, the Beethoven Emperor may be the pinnacle. Not because of the piano part so much, but because of the interplay of various instruments–winds in particular, with the piano.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Chris

      I’ll have to revise my opinion as to Levit’s Goldberg. Wow. Some of his variations are astonishingly wonderful. Perhaps I wasn’t in the proper mood when I found him not so “engaging.” I’m still not sure I like all of his takes however. But even the ones not at the top of my list, are at least very interesting.

      As to Diabelli var.. I see why people might like them–I listened to Staier’s version, but I’m not fond of waltzes to begin with and I don’t really need more music to listen to, especially when it might take many attempts at listening to truly appreciate it.

      I like to spend only so much time listening to music seriously; my attention lapses after awhile. How much time do you spend? Seems like it must be quite a bit. Same goes for reading btw; I might love a book but still won’t read much of it in one sitting.

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