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”.

Singing the Unsingable, Bethany Beardslee’s Autobiography


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by Bethany Beardslee and Minna Zallman Proctor

This is not, strictly speaking, an autobiography.  It is perhaps more in the style of a memoir.  It traces the career and life of a woman whose voice drove much of the avant garde from the 1950’s to the 1980’s.  It is told with a sober tone as the artist looks back on the highs and lows of life and career well spent.  She tactfully shares just enough of her personal life and relationships to provide a context for her tales.

Anyone with an interest in new music during those years had to encounter Beardslee’s carefully cultivated soprano voice.  Along with names like Phyllis Bryn-Julson, Cathy Berberian, and Jan De Gaetani, hers was a very familiar and welcome voice which led listeners (including this writer) reliably and frequently definitively through the plurality of styles that comprise the 20th Century.  Of course she was trained in and also sang the so called “classics” meaning Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann etc. but she will likely be best known for her extraordinary service to new music.

Beardslee’s lengthy and sometimes rambling tome is a very personal look at a long and productive career.   She recounts teachers, other singers, composers, conductors, accompanists, and husbands over the span of a rich and interesting career.  The rambling quality of her prose serves only to cast an even more personal light on these accounts of her life and artistry.  Never is there a dull moment and this book will delight singers, composers, historians, and just plain listeners.

In the end this was a very satisfying read and the intelligent decision to include a discography as well as a list of Ms. Beardslee’s world and US premieres makes this book a useful document for further research into her career and the music which drove it.

Fantastic New Music for Piano and Strings, The Jupiter Quartet with Bernadette Harvey


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There is no small irony for this reviewer in the title of this offering.  As soon as it was removed from its packaging I, much as Alice was implored by the comestibles in Wonderland, felt compelled by joyous expectation to consume it with eyes and ears.  And I was not disappointed.

Three composers are represented with one work each (two by Mr. Jalbert) in an album of recent compositions in modern but essentially tonal chamber music for highly skilled musicians. All But one (Secret Alchemy) are world premiere recordings commissioned by the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music and all contribute most handsomely to the piano and strings literature.

The highly skilled musicians are the extraordinary Australian Bernadette Harvey on piano with the Jupiter Quartet (Nelson Lee and Meg Freivogel, violins; Liz Freivogel, viola; and Daniel McDonough, cello).  They play extremely well together despite having to navigate all new and challenging material.  Harvey, in addition to traditional repertoire is a major advocate for living Australian composers.

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Pierre Jalbert

The album opens with Piano Quintet (2017) by Pierre Jalbert (1967-  ) which draws as much on the romantic tradition (can one hear the ensemble name “piano quintet” without thinking of Schubert, Brahms, and Schumann?) of that ensemble’s configuration as on his more modernist sense of rhythm and harmony.  It is cast in four movements titled, Mannheim Rocket, Kyrie, Scherzo, and Pulse.  This is a major work by a composer new to these ears and apparently very substantial.  This is highly engaging music with romantic leanings perhaps but there is nothing derivative here.  This composer is a voice that deserves an ear or two.

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Steven Stucky

Next up is music by the late lamented Steven Stucky (1949-2016).  While I regret not having gotten to know a lot of his music during his lifetime I find myself enthralled at the power and lyricism of each work I hear (the man was prolific too so I have much listening to catch up on).  This one is no exception, Piano Quartet (2004-5) is in a single movement with multiple sections of varied character.  Anyone who has heard any of Stucky’s music will find this piece both exciting and accessible.

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Carl Vine

Carl Vine (1954- ) is a prolific Australian composer (the only non-American composer represented) whose work certainly deserves to be better known outside of his native country.  He does appear to get recognition and respect there and with Fantasia for Piano Quintet (2013) we can see why.  This one movement work is (like the Stucky piece) divided into sections played without pause.  This is another work of both power and virtuosity which holds the listener’s interest and, ultimately, provides a satisfying concert experience.

The program ends with another substantial work from Mr. Jalbert, a piano quintet in all but name.  Secret Alchemy (2012) allows us to hear some earlier chamber music writing by this composer.  Again each movement is given a title but this time they are more like expression markings and less poetic.  They are: Mystical, Agitated, Timeless, and With Great Energy.  Why that’s practically a program note!  And like the piece that opened this disc it indeed has great energy and will engage the listener.

This album exceeded my enthusiastic expectations and I will listen again, probably many times.  Well done.