Igor Levit is a man of vision and of multiple talents. His pianistic skills and his vast knowledge of repertoire are pretty much unquestioned at this point. His vision is evidenced by his very personal choices in choosing what he will play and record. In my first encounter with this artist, his three disc survey of large keyboard variation works spanning three centuries including Frederic Rzewski’s “The People United…” suggested that this piece represent the 20 century with the Beethoven “Diabelli Variations” representing the 19th century, and Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” the 18th, and virtually the origin of the form.
I have not heard all of Levit’s albums but those I have seem a similar pattern in his choices of what to record. They seem to serve his vision of choosing works for which he makes the case that they be included in the common concert hall repertoire. His inclusion of Ronald Stevenson’s monumental “Variations on DSCH” alongside the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues effectively issued a challenge to his fellow artists to consider including those masterworks in the canon of music commonly played in concert halls.
The two disc set considered here seems to follow that same pattern. In “Tristan”, Levit makes provocative and unusual but ultimately intelligent choices of what to play.
Here, Levit makes a charming choice of performing the late, great Hungarian pianist, composer, and conductor Zoltan Kocsis whose transcription of Wagner’s “Tristan Prelude” (1857-9) for piano is basically the seed from which this quasi-concept album grows. And finally, in another brilliant move, he includes Ronald Stevenson’s piano transcription of the gorgeous, angst ridden Adagio of Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony 1910-11), making at least the suggestion of a connection between the 19th century of Wagner’s landmark opera and, via Mahler’s post romanticism to Henze’s 20th century Tristan whose inspiration was garnered from that same medieval epic poem.
The centerpiece here is obviously Hans Werner Henze’s “Tristan Preludes” (1974) for piano, orchestra, and tape (a rare but effective choice by this composer). He pairs this large work with curiously connected pieces such as Liszt’s very familiar “Liebestraum No. 3“ (1850), and the less familiar Transcendental Etude, “Harmonies du soir” (1851). Liszt, a contemporary and supporter of Wagner, was the virtuosic showman, the “Liberace” of his day. This helps provide the listener a historical context as well as a contrast to the severe intensity and harmonic rebellion of Wagner’s “Tristan”.
Surprisingly, as far as I can tell, this is only the second recording of this major Henze work (wonderfully conducted by the fine Franz Welser-Möst) and likely the first recording of the Kocsis and Stevenson transcriptions. I have no doubt the Liszt selections have received much attention but they are critical here to Levit’s appropriately lofty (and very much romantic) vision, that of garnering a deserved place for all of this music to be kept alive both in recordings and the concert hall.
Levit’s playing is slow paced, full of romantic angst, and full of nuance. His pacing and his use of a wide dynamic range create an atmosphere that is both dark, and meditative. This album has the deep substance of Levit’s personal vision, a glory to behold. The gauntlet has been laid down.