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.
Were it not for the wishes of some of my valued readers I would not produce such a list. It has no more validity other than, “These are my personal choices”. But there is some joy to be had in contemplating these past 12 months as I have lived them on this blog. So here goes.
First I have to tell everyone that March, 2022 will mark the 10th anniversary of this blog, a venture which has been a rich and exciting one. Future blogs will soon include, in addition to album/concert reviews, some articles on subjects which I hope will be of interest to the select group of people who read this material and who share my interest in this music (which I know can be anywhere from difficult to repulsive to many ears). But I have deduced that my readers are my community, a community of kindred spirits freed from the boundaries of geography, a number rather larger than I had imagined was possible and one that I’ve come to cherish. Bravo to all of you out there.
COVID 19 has reduced the number of live performances worldwide and I have not attended a live performance since early 2020. But, happily, musicians have continued to produce some amazing work, some of which gets sent to me, and a portion of that gets to be subjected to the analytic scrutiny of my blog.
My lack of attention to any music should never be construed as deprecatory, rather it is simply a matter of limited time to listen. So if I have provided a modicum of understanding or even just alerted someone to something new I am pleased and if ever I have offended, I apologize. All this is my personal celebration of art which has enhanced my spirit and which I want to share with others. Look what Ive found!!!
So, to the task at hand (the “best of” part):
The formula I’ve developed to generate this “favorites retrospective” has been to utilize WordPress’ useful statistics and look at the top viewed posts. From these most visited (and presumably most read) articles I produce a list of ten or so of my greatest hits from there. Please note that there are posts which have had and continue to have a fairly large readership from previous years and they’re not necessarily the ones I might have expected but the stats demand their inclusion here.
Following that I then toss in a few which are my personal faves (please read them) to produce what I hope is a reasonably cogent and readable list. Following my own description of my guiding principles I endeavor to present the perspective of person whose day job and energies are spent in decidedly non-musical efforts but whose interest and passion for new music drives this blog where I share those interests.
As a largely self taught writer (and sometime composer) I qualify my opinions as being those of an educated listener whose allegiances are to what I perceive as pleasing and artistically ideal based on my personal perception of the composer’s/performer’s intent. I am not a voting member for the Grammys and I receive no compensation for favorable reviews. I have the hope/belief that my blogs will ultimately garner a few more listens or performances of art that I hope brings my readers at least some of the joy I feel.
New Music Buff’s Best of 2021
As of this writing I have published 37 blog posts in 2021. COVID, job and personal stressors have resulted in my failing to post at all in December, 2020, January, June, and July of 2021. And only one post in February, 2021. Surprisingly I have managed to get just over 9300 views so far this year (a little more views than last year actually) and it is my plan to publish 4-5 blogs per month going forward into my tenth year.
Not surprisingly, most of my readers are from the United States but I’m pleased to say that I’ve had hits from 192 countries at last count. Thanks to all my readers, apologies to the many countries who didn’t make the cut this year (you’re all welcome to try again in 2022). So, following the United States here are the subsequent top 25 countries who have viewed the blog:
Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, China, France, Netherlands, Spain, Australia, Ireland, India, Italy, Turkey, Nigeria, Japan, Brazil, South Korea, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Poland, Philippines, Ghana, Norway.
Top Ten Most Read of 2021
The following are the most seen articles of 2021. Some of these are articles whose popularity surprise me as they were written some time ago and are not necessarily, in my opinion, my best work. But readership is readership and I am grateful for that.
Top article, Linda Twine, a Musician You Should Know. Twine is a musician and composer who has worked for some years in New York theater. I chose to profile her and I guess she is well liked because this article from 2018 is one of my top performers. Kudos, Ms. Twine.
Next up is, The Three Black Countertenors, an article suggested by my friend Bill Doggett whose website is a must visit for anyone interested in black classical musicians. This one, from 2014, continues to find readers. It is about the first time three black countertenors appeared on the same stage. Countertenors are themselves a vocal minority when considered in the company of sopranos, baritones, tenors, contraltos, and basses. Being black adds another level of minority in the world of operatic voices so this was indeed historic.
Art and the Reclamation of History is the first of the articles written this year to make the top ten most read. It is about a fabulous album and I hope more people read about it. This Detroit based reed quintet is doing something truly innovative. You really need to hear this.
Number four is another from this past year, Kinga Augustyn Tackles the Moderns. This album, kindly sent to me by the artist is worth your time if you like modern music. This young Polish/American violinist has both technique and vision. She is definitely an artist to watch.
Number five is a truly fabulous album from Cedille records, David Schrader Plays Sowerby and Ferko. This double CD just fires on all cylinders, a fine artist, excellent recording, interesting and engaging repertoire, amazing photography, excellent liner notes, and love for all things Chicago. This one is a major classic release.
The Jack Quartet Plays Cenk Ergun was a pleasant surprise to this blogger. The Jack Quartet has chosen wisely in deciding to release this recording of new string quartet music by this young Turkish composer of serious substance. I’m glad that many folks read it.
Number seven on this years hit list among my readers is another album sent directly to me by the artist, one whose work I had reviewed before.
Catherine’s Oboe: Catherine Lee’s New Solo Album, “Alone Together” is among the best of the COVID lockdown inspired releases that flooded the market this year. It is also one of the finest examples of the emerging latest generation of “west coast” composers. Dr. Lee is a master of the oboe and related instruments and she has been nurtured on the artistic ideas/styles that seem to be endemic among composers on the west coast of the United States. She deserves to be heard.
Number Eight is an article from 2014, Classical Protest Music: Hans Werner Henze’s “Essay on Pigs” (Versuch uber Schweine). This 1968 noisy modernist setting of leftist political poetry combines incredible extended vocal techniques with the dissonant modernism of Hans Werner Henze’s work of that era. Also of note is that his use of a Hammond Organ and electric bass guitar was allegedly inspired by his having heard the Rolling Stones. It’s a classic but warn anyone within earshot lest they be terrified.
As it happens there is a three way tie for the number ten spot:
Black Composers Since 1964: Primous Fountain is one of a short series of articles I wrote in 2014. I used the date 1964, 50 years prior to the date of the blog post, because it was the year of the passing of the (still controversial) voting rights act. As a result of this and a few related articles I have found myself on occasion categorized as a sort of de facto expert on black music and musicians. I am no expert there but I have personally discovered a lot of really amazing music by black composers which is way too little known and deserves an audience.
I am pleased to tell you that this too little known composer (and fellow Chicagoan) is being recognized by no less than Michael Tilson Thomas who will conduct an entire program of his works in Miami next year. If my blog has helped in any way then I am pleased but the real honors go, of course, to Mr. Fountain and Mr. Thomas (who first conducted this composer’s music many years ago). Stay tuned.
And the third contender for my tenth most read of 2021 is, Kenneth Gaburo, the Avant-Garde in the Summer of Love. This is among the first volley of releases on the revived Neuma label with Philip Blackburn at the helm. Blackburn’s instincts guided Innova records to release many wonderful recordings of music rarely on the radar of larger record companies and this first volley was a harbinger of even more wonderful releases to come. Just do a Neuma search and see what I mean.
The Ones That Didn’t Make the Top Ten
I would be negligent and boringly formulaic to simply report on these top ten. This is not a democratic blog after all, lol. So here are my choices for the ones that many of my dear readers may have missed and should definitely check out. It is anything but objective. They are, in no particular order:
Dennis Weijers: Skill and Nostalgia in an Auspicious Debut Album is a sort of personal discovery for me. This reworking of Philip Glass’ “Glassworks” and Steve Reich’s “Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards” scored for solo accordion and electronics pretty much knocked me over as soon as I heard it. Read the blog to see why but you have to hear this. This is NOT your granddaddy’s accordion.
Vision, Virtuosity, and Interpretive Skill: Igor Levit’s “On DSCH” is an album I just can’t stop listening to. I raved about his earlier set of piano variations by Bach, Beethoven, and the late Frederic Rzewski and I look forward to this man’s musical vision as he expands the concert repertoire with works you probably haven’t heard or at least haven’t heard much. You owe it to yourself to watch this artist.
Black Artists Matter: The Resurrection of the Harlem Arts Festival, 1969 is one of the relatively few times when I write about so called “pop” music. It is wholly unconscionable that these filmed performances from 1969 (many of which predated Woodstock) languished for 50 years in the filmmaker’s basement and were nearly lost. One of the recurring themes in this blog is the lament over unjustly neglected music and this is a glaring example. I was delighted to see that the filmmaker Questlove received an award at the Sundance Festival for his work on this essential documentary of American music.
Less “flashy” but sublimely beautiful is Modern Tuning Scholarship, Authentic Bach Performance: Daniel Lippel’s “Aufs Lautenwerk”. This is a masterpiece of scholarship and a gorgeous recording on a specially made Well-Tempered Guitar played with serious passion and interpretive genius by a man who is essential to the productions of New Focus recordings as well as being a fine musician himself. Read the review or the liner notes for details but just listen. This is another one that I can’t stop listening to.
Unheard Hovhaness, this Sahan Arzruni album really rocked my geeky world. Arzruni, a frequent collaborator with Hovhaness turns in definitive performances of these previously unheard gems from the late American composer. A gorgeous physical production and a lucid recording make this another disc that lives on my “frequently played” shelf.
New Music from Faroese Master Sunleif Rasmussen with soloist Michala Petri is an album of world premieres by this master composer from the Faroe Islands. It is also a tribute to the enduring artistry of Michala Petri. I had the honor and pleasure of meeting both of these artists some years ago in San Francisco and anything they do will demand my attention, they’re that good.
Last but not least, as they say, Robert Moran: Points of Departure is another triumph of Philip Blackburn’s curation on Neuma records. I have personally been a fan of Moran’s music since I first heard his work at the Chicago iteration of New Music America in 1982. Blackburn’s service to this composer’s work can be likened to similar service done by David Starobin at Bridge Records (who have embarked on complete works projects with several contemporary composers) and Tom Steenland’s work with Guy Klucevsek and Tod Dockstader at Starkland records. Blackburn had previously released the out of print Argo recordings of Moran’s work and now, at Neuma has released this and a few other new recordings of this major American composer’s work.
My apologies to the albums I’ve reviewed which didn’t make it to this year’s end blog but I have to draw a line somewhere. Peace, health, and music. And thank you for reading.
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”.
Let me start by saying that I specifically requested the opportunity to review this October, 2015 release because I was pleased and fascinated to see this representation of three major masterworks of the large variation form included in a single collection. To my knowledge this is the first time that these three works have been represented in a single release.
Variation form is one of the staples of the composer’s arsenal of techniques for well over 400 years now but the form is most commonly used as one technique in one of several movements of a larger work. Consequently these types of variations generally last a few minutes. A favorite example is the variations movement from Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet, a set of variations on his song, “Die Forelle” (trout in English) which subsequently lends the title to the entire work for piano quintet. This variation movement runs about 7 minutes or so in performance. The Goldberg Variations (1741) can run up to 2 hours if one includes all the repeats but generally performances take about an hour.
So, along comes Johann Sebastian Bach who is commissioned by one Count Herman Karl von Keyserling (1697-1764) to compose some music for harpsichord (the predominant keyboard instrument of the day) to be performed by his personal musician Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (1727-1756) to aid the count’s insomnia. The original intent apparently was to have the player perform one or two of said variations as a sleep-inducing remedy upon the Count’s request. The work, using a brief Sarabande from the Bach’s own Anna Magdalena Notebook collection of pieces, has since taken the performer’s name as the Goldberg Variations.
It is not clear when the practice of performing the work in it’s entirety began but there is little doubt that Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording for Columbia Records (now Sony Classical) placed this piece firmly in the repertoire and in the minds and hearts of musicians and the listening public. The variations had been recorded before by Rudolf Serkin, Wanda Landowska, Claudio Arrau, Ralph Kirkpatrick, Gustav Leonhardt and Roslyn Tureck but Gould’s quirky interpretation apparently defined a moment.
In 1819 the publisher Anton Diabelli composed a waltz and sent it out to many composers of the time asking them to write a variation on his piece with the promise that the collection would then be published. This was not an uncommon practice at the time and it is certainly a workable business plan.
Indeed Diabelli did publish a compendium of these 50 plus variations by many composers of the day (including Franz Schubert and the 11 year old Franz Liszt) as Vaterländischer Künstlerverein (the link will take you to the downloadable score of the non-Beethoven variations on the waltz) but these are largely now forgotten. Beethoven apparently balked at the idea or simply saw a larger potential in Diabelli’s brief waltz because he chose to write not one but 33 variations on the theme which subsequently became Volume II of Diabelli’s project.
Unlike the Goldberg Variations the Diabelli Variations (1823) were intended as a concert piece to be performed in its entirety. Like most of Beethoven’s music this piece found a place in the repertoire and remains a staple for many pianists. It is not clear if Beethoven was familiar with Bach’s work but the gesture is certainly similar in creating a large cohesive set of variations.
In 1975 the fabulous pianist Ursula Oppens commissioned Frederic Rzewski to write a set of variations that could be a companion piece to the Diabelli Variations. Rzewski composed the music and Oppens premiered it in 1976. Her subsequent recording from 1979 was nominated for a Grammy Award.
Frederic Rzewski (1938- ) is a composer/performer as were Bach and Beethoven. He is a highly virtuosic pianist and a prolific composer whose influence extends widely from his involvement in the European avant garde including his own innovative use of early electronics in his ensemble Musica Elletronica Viva with Alvin Curran, Richard Teitelbaum, Allan Bryant, Carol Plantamura and John Phetteplace.
Rzewski’s variations are based on a revolutionary song by Sergio Ortega called, “El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido” (The People United Will Never Be Defeated), a song popular during the Chilean revolution that deposed Salvador Allende. Unlike Bach and Beethoven, Rzewski’s music frequently takes on political associations, usually pretty explicitly as seen in this piece.
There are 36 Variations (6 groups of 6) and, like the preceding pieces are a reflection of much of the performance practice of their respective times. Various “extended techniques” include slamming the lid of the keyboard, whistling and others are carefully integrated into this very cohesive mostly tonal work.
This piece seems to be gaining ground as familiar repertoire in the concert hall and, whether by accident or design, the inclusion of this piece along with the other two by Sony (who, you will recall released the establishing version of the Goldberg Variations) in effect is a major acknowledgement of this piece as perhaps the foremost representation of the large variation form in the 20th century much as the Goldberg and Diabelli Variations represent the 18th and 19th. Bravo, Sony!
The interest here too is the emergence of a new artist, the Russian pianist Igor Levit (1987- ). This is his third release on Sony Classical, the previous two being the 2 disc set of the Beethoven late piano sonatas and the 2 disc set of the Bach Partitas for keyboard.
I won’t go into the nuances of interpretation that distinguish Levit from other performers of these variations except to say that he has to my ears a lighter touch, more Chopin in spirit than Liszt perhaps. His performances leave no doubt as to his virtuosity and interpretive abilities but, of course, there are always discussions of individual preferences for one or another pianist in such repertoire. What is undeniable is his ability to grasp the larger picture and to perform these large masterpieces in such a way as to convince the listener of the integrity of each work and to hold the interest of the listener throughout the performances. There is, in the end, no definitive recording of any music really but these are certainly candidates in the debate.
In short this is a fine set of discs, beautifully recorded, which would please anyone interested in classical music and piano music in general. Over time one might want to hear other interpretations but these recordings are extremely satisfying and represent their composers as well as any I’ve heard.