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”.

Duo Stephanie and Saar: Cavatina


New Focus FCR274

It is not generally the mission of New Focus Recordings nor this blog to present music written before 1950. Piano duos are also not new either but Duo Stephanie and Saar are emerging as a piano four hands duo that commands the listener’s attention by their fresh interpretations and their unique choices of repertory.

The present album, Cavatine, focuses on only two works. Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 130 and Schubert’s Fantasie in F Minor D.940. The Beethoven is a six movement work scored for the standard string quartet (two violins, viola, and cello). It is presented here in a transcription for two pianos. The first five movements were transcribed by Hans Ulrich and Robert Wittman and the last is by the composer himself. But this is not the final version of this quartet. Beethoven wrote another ending and gave the previous final movement a life of its own as Grosse Fuge with its own opus number (134). It is a large and complex piece of music and judging from previous releases by this duo they seem to love playing counterpoint. Their previous release was Bach’s Art of Fugue.

This then is the original version of the quartet but instead of a string quartet we hear this played on a piano by four able hands. Now the original reason for transcriptions seems to have been to make music playable in situations where string players (in this case) were not available. However the reason a listener would buy this disc is to provide a new perspective on this music. If you are already familiar with the quartet version you may find yourself hearing it differently after listening to this performance. There is something mind altering about hearing music taken out of its original context. This is pure late Beethoven at his best.

The meandering movements traverse various moods and their character is distinctly different from the more generally familiar middle period music. This music is very different from what came before and many people who are familiar with the first eight Beethoven symphonies, the first 12 quartets, and perhaps the first 28 piano sonatas frequently find difficulty, on first hearing of the composer’s later style, recognizing it as being by the same composer.

The penultimate Cavatine from which the album takes its title is the quartet movement selected to be on the famed Voyager Golden Record which was sent with voyager 1 and 2 (both launched in 1977) as examples of the culture of earthlings in pictures and sounds. On that disc, now billions of miles from its origin Cavatine is preceded by Blind Willie Johnson’s haunting “Dark is the Night” and the Cavatine is the last music selection.

The Cavatine is marked with a performance indication “Beklemmt”, a German word which translates something like, “oppressed, anguished, stifled”. It has been suggested that this movement reflects Beethoven’s sadness at his failed pursuit of his mysterious, “Immortal Beloved” and when one hears the music this notion seems to make sense. It is a powerful statement and this recording delivers a convincing reading.

The old finale, recast as a standalone piece, is a rather long (16+ minutes) and listeners familiar with the final new allegretto finale may find this Grosse Fuge as an ending too weighty to follow the previous five movements. This may be the reason for the composer deciding to revise his original. And in the piano four hand version the weightiness and the complexity are seemingly even more in evidence. Whether that is due to the transcription or to the performance is not clear (it is likely both) but this alone is worth the price of the disc.

The last piece, Schubert’s Fantasie in F minor is a personal favorite and it is played here exactly as written, for piano four hands. It is loaded with romantic pathos and according to the brief but useful liner notes this piece may be a reflection of Schubert’s unrequited feelings for Caroline Esterhazy, the music’s dedicatee. Written in the year of Schubert’s death, it is one of his finest works.

This piece has both a strong sense of intimacy but it is music of almost symphonic dimensions. It is cast in four movements played without pause. The last movement includes a fugue. It is played beautifully here and, if you don’t know this late masterpiece, this is a fine place to start.

This album, recorded in late 2019, is dedicated both to the victims of the Covid-19 virus and to one of their mentors, the late great Leon Fleisher. Who knows what this duo will tackle next? The Brahms two piano arrangement of his Piano Quintet? Franz Liszt’s transcription of the Beethoven ninth? That is anybody’s guess but you can be sure that it will be interesting