Vision, Virtuosity, and Interpretive Skill: Igor Levit’s “On DSCH”


Sony Classical 19439809212

I first came to know these Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues Op. 87 (1950-1) in the recording by Keith Jarrett on ECM some years ago (1992). At the time I was not familiar with this post-Bach set of compositions (one might even call it a “meme”) written to showcase the newly codified “Well Tempered Tuning” but I was intrigued by Jarrett’s choices of repertoire. Not surprisingly, I immediately liked this gargantuan undertaking. I appreciated these pieces as listenable, stimulating musical compositions and a good choice of repertoire by the always interesting Mr. Jarrett. Many pianists have recorded this cycle of works though I can’t recall a recital of the entire set being performed live as occurs fairly frequently with the Bach cycles (he wrote two sets of 24 preludes and fugues in each of the 24 keys of the western musical scale).

Readers of this blog may recall my fawning over an earlier Levit release, a 3 disc set of piano variations containing Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” (1741), Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” (1819-23), and Frederic Rzewski’s “The People United Will Never Be Defeated” (1975). I asserted that Sony, whose recording (1955) of Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations helped elevate that work into the popular repertoire, had at least implied that these three large sets of variations are musically on the same level of significance thus potentially elevating the Rzewski piece to the more mainstream repertory.

Now comes yet another 3 disc set from this fine Russian/German pianist who seems to be possessed of vision as well as virtuosity and interpretive skills. Levit is clearly comfortable with the “usual suspects”, the common repertoire of live piano recitals (Beethoven’s Sonatas, Schubert, Schumann, Debussy, Liszt, etc.) but is clearly interested in expanding the general repertoire by discovering lesser known works that he finds deserve to be heard more often. A quick look at the pianists other releases reveals a similar pattern even in works of a less grand scale than those discussed in this essay.

Anselm Cybinski’s fine liner notes derive from his reading of history, Shostakovich’s and Stevenson’s biographies, and his conversations with Mr. Levit. Here he describes what Shostakovich was enduring in the years when he brought forth these compositions, post WWII, life in the repressive Stalinist regime, recent censure by said regime, and his attempts to be return from this censure and be allowed to have his works performed again. He relates the story of the then 21 year old Tatiana Nikolayeva who premiered this work and played it before the committee. He also sketches the impact of various historical events on Shostakovich and his music.

The preludes are described as emotional responses to these varied events, a sort of exorcising of the emotional turmoil these events had on the composer. He describes in these notes the contexts which clearly impact the pianist in his understanding and subsequent interpretation of this music, contexts which help the listener grasp the deeper levels of meaning inherent (or at least implied) in these works.

He does the same with the Stevenson work, itself a response to the sufferings of a fellow artist, a sort of artistic dialogue analogous to that of songwriters and other musicians who used their art to make a point (Lynyrd Skynyrd writing, “Sweet Home Alabama” in response to Neil Young’s, “Southern Man” or Leonard Bernstein’s performance of Haydn’s “Mass in Time of War” concurrently with the second inaugural concert for Richard Nixon as a political counterpoint are two such examples), not the same situations perhaps but artistic dialogues nonetheless.

Apparently Ronald Stevenson (1928-1915) wrote his gargantuan “Passacaglia on DSCH” in 1960 as a tribute to his fellow composer. There are many examples of Shostakovich using the German note spelling of “D”, “Es” (pronounced, “S”), “C”, “H” (German notation for “B”) all of which translates to the actual notes of D, E flat, C, B as a motif in his work so Stevenson’s use of it is quite apt.

This Passacaglia is a work which I had “known of” but never heard before hearing this recording. It is a marvelous work, not exactly easy listening but a very satisfying work which improves with subsequent hearings, revealing itself as a multi-layered masterpiece. And it is Levit’s vision that effectively gives this work, and the Shostakovich cycle a significant and, thanks again to Sony, a very large public nudge to get this music heard and played more often.

No doubt many reviewers will spend time comparing the various recordings of the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues and the Stevenson Passacaglia. For the record I did a quick search and found four recordings of the Stevenson work and at least 12 complete recordings of the Shostakovich. However, for the purposes of this review I will leave discussion of the merits and shortcomings of the various interpretations to people better qualified than I. The takeaway I hope to share with my readers is, “Get this set and enjoy it” and to musicians and producers, “Pay attention to Igor Levit’s artistic radar”.

Classical Protest Music: Frederic Rzewski- The People United Will Never Be Defeated


In an earlier post (Political Classical Music in the Twentieth and Twenty First Centuries, posted on March 20, 2013) I discussed a project in which I would identify what I have deemed significant works in this genre.  I have decided to narrow the topic to those works which are inspired by or are intended to express dissatisfaction with given sociopolitical issues.  This will then leave out works which are friendly to the political situation such as Aaron Copland‘s ‘Lincoln Portrait’ and ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’. These are both great pieces of music but their presentation is more celebratory than critical.

Dag in de Branding 11 - Frederic Rzewski

Dag in de Branding 11 – Frederic Rzewski (Photo credit: Haags Uitburo)

So without further discussion (a proposed taxonomy of classical political music will be discussed in a future blog post) I wish to present another blog in that series.  The work up for discussion is the large set of piano variations composed in 1976 for the pianist Ursula Oppens.  Rzewski is well known for his virtuosity and for his support of and definitive performances of new music.  He is also known for quite a bit of music with political themes.  Some of those other works  will likely be the subjects of future posts in this series.

Logo de la banda Category:Quilapayún

Logo de la banda Category:Quilapayún (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rzewski took as his starting point a popular song by Sergio Ortega (1938-2003), a Chilean composer and pianist.  He wrote the song in 1973 with lyrics written by members of the musical group Quilapayún who subsequently recorded it.  Quilapayún recorded no less than 26 studio albums from 1966-2009 along with several live albums.  They are a part of the Nueva Canción Chilena which sought political change through new songs defining those changes.  The Nueva Canción movement became a subset of Latin American and Iberian folk-inspired protest music which saw groups form worldwide producing songs which became part of the soundtrack of political protests in those various countries.

English: The Inti-Illimani logo Español: Logo ...

English: The Inti-Illimani logo Español: Logo Inti-Illimani (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the 1973 coup which deposed and likely assassinated Salvador Allende the song was popularized also by another Chilean group, Inti-Illimani.  Both groups along with many political dissidents sought and found asylum in other countries.  Inti-Illimani found refuge in Italy, Ortega and Quilapayún settled in France.

This major opus was written on commission for Ursula Oppens who asked for a companion to the Beethoven Diabelli Variations, certainly a tall order.  Rzewski wrote the piece in 1975 no doubt inspired at least in part by the 1973 coup which deposed Salvador Allende and installed the dictator Augusto Pinochet.  The piece consists of 36 variations grouped in 6 sets of 6 variations each.  In a nod to Bach’s Goldberg Variations the final variation is a restatement of the theme.  In addition to the main theme there are quotations from an Italian socialist song, “Bandiera Rossa” and “Solidarity Song” with words by Bertold Brecht and music by Rzewski’s former teacher, Hanns Eisler.

Oppens premiered the piece on February 7, 1976 at the Bicentennial Piano Series at the John F. Kennedy Center for the performing arts in Washington, D.C.  She made a grammy nominated recording of the work in 1979 and the piece has enjoyed numerous subsequent performances and recordings.

The piece is structured symmetrically in six sets of six variations each.  It also allows for a bit of improvisation.  But this is an eminently listeninable piece which seems rightfully to be gaining its place in the repertoire.  This is evidenced most recently in Sony’s decision to include this set of variations along with those of Bach (Goldberg Variations) and Beethoven (Diabelli Variations) in a boxed set which I reviewed here.

Rzewski himself has recorded the piece four times (1977, 1990, 1999 and 2007).  The last recording is a video of the performance. Having seen Rzewski perform this piece live in 1989 I can tell you that his performance is a pleasure to behold.

Several other pianists have released recordings (not counting several good ones on You Tube) including Marc-Andre Hamelin, Stephen Drury, Kai Schumacher,  I look forward to other recordings hoping to hear interpretations from Sarah Cahill, Bruce Brubaker, Lisa Moore, R. Andrew Lee and Nicolas Horvath to name a few.

Whether this work had any impact on the atrocities of the repressive Pinochet regime is certainly doubtful but the fact that this piece has essentially entered the repertoire for virtuoso pianists and stands as a monumental achievement in the variation form will pretty much guarantee that the atrocities and their perpetrators will be recalled and hopefully reviled at each and every performance.

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