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”.

The Shostakovich Fourth, the Symphony That Almost Wasn’t


Shostakovich dealt with a great deal of adversity as a result of wars, the revolution, and Stalinism. That is sad but it makes for some really amazing stories. So it is with this symphony.

It was composed in 1936 and would mark the entry of more post-romantic elements into the composer’s work which gives it a Mahler-like cast at times. Unfortunately the politics resulted in the composer withdrawing the symphony. During WWII the score was lost and reconstructed from surviving orchestral parts and the present two piano transcription by the composer. The world premiere occurred in 1961 under Kiril Kondrashin.

It is the two piano “reduction” which is featured here. Reduction refers to the transcription of the piece for two pianos but the grand symphonic nature shines through with amazing lucidity. Of course this is as much due to the skill of the transcription but also of the artists. If you have never heard a great transcription this will amaze you.

Davies and Namekawa have established quite a name for themselves as a duo piano team. Davies, the long established conductor and his life partner Namekawa, herself a dazzling pianist have collaborated for some time now as a duo and this recording is testament to what they can do. Here they joyfully share their interests and insights on this masterpiece. Even if you have and know the orchestral version you will want to hear this.

There are three movements here. The outer movements are long extended compositions with a small(but amazing) interlude in between. This is not the Shostakovich of the famed 5th symphony. Rather it is a sort of transitional piece between the student work of the first symphony and the social realism of the second and third symphonies. While deeply intelligent the work has no intended program and one could almost pass this off stylistically as a lost Mahler work.

Fear not, though, the composer’s fingerprint is here. After all this is his 4th essay in the symphony genre. Unfortunately a perfect storm of politics conspired to almost destroy this work. Fortunately both this reduction and the reconstruction make the work available. It is especially curious for the Shostakovich enthusiast to listen to this work and imagine the care that must have been taken to avoid being associated with non state-approved music. It’s a good example of how politics places additional meaning on a piece of music that originally had none.

The recordings is lucid and is due for release on February 8th. One added sort of irony. The work is scheduled for its west coast premiere in San Francisco on February 10th.

When Politics and the Arts Clash, OM 22


Isang Yun (1917-1995)


The relationship between politics and music is complex and varied.  There are many instances of clashes between these two disciplines from the politics of state and church sponsored music to its repression by those same institutions.

After centuries of Catholic church sponsored music a decision was made in 1903 to repress the performance of anything but Gregorian chant and any instruments except for the ubiquitous organ.  The reasons for this decree have been discussed but the end result was less work for musicians.

More recently the Nazi “degenerate art” concepts and the later proscriptions on “formalist music” in Soviet Russia similarly put artists and musicians out of work.  In fact many were jailed or killed.  Shostakovich and Prokofiev were high profile musicians who endured bans on performances of their music based ostensibly on claims that it brought (or potentially brought) harm to the state’s political visions.

Even more recently the blacklist created by Joseph McCarthy and his acolytes perpetrated a similar assault on actors, directors and writers like Dalton Trumbo (recently dramatized in the excellent film Trumbo with Bryan Cranston leading the fine cast).  This sad chapter of history did not completely end until the 1970s and only recently have efforts succeeded in restoring suppressed screen credits to these films.  Many lives were destroyed or irreparably harmed.  One hopes, of course, that such travesties will not be repeated but the recent efforts to eliminate the NEA suggest that such struggles remain with us.

On February 18th Other Minds will present a centennial celebration of two composers’ births.  Lou Harrison certainly expressed some political themes in some of his music but did not incur state sponsored political wrath.  Unfortunately this was not the case with the other honoree of Other Minds’ 22nd season.

In 1967 Korean composer Isang Yun was kidnapped by South Korean intelligence officers and taken to South Korea to face accusations of collaboration with the communist government of North Korea.  He was held for two years and was subjected to interrogation and torture based on information later acknowledged to have been fabricated.  Even so South Korea declined to allow the ailing composer’s request to visit his hometown in 1994.  He died the following year in his adoptive home in Berlin, Germany.

A petition signed by over 200 artists including composers Karlheinz Stockhausen, Hans Werner Henze, Gyorgy Ligeti and conductors Otto Klemperer and Joseph Keilberth among the many was sent to the South Korean government in protest.  A fine recent article by K. J. Noh, Republic of Terror, Republic of Torture puts the incident in larger political context. It is a lesson sadly relevant even now in our politically turbulent times.

The concert will feature works from various points in his career, both before and after the aforementioned incident.  It is a fine opportunity to hear the work of this too little known 20th century master.  Conductor and pianist Dennis Russell Davies knew and worked with both Harrison and Isang.  It is so fitting that he will participate along with his wife, justly famed new music pianist Maki Namekawa, in this tribute to the the late composer.  This can’t right the wrongs but what better way to honor a composer than by performing his music?

The performance is at 7:30 PM at the historic Mission Dolores Basilica at 3321 16th Street
San Francisco, CA 94114.  Tickets available (only $20) at Brown Paper Tickets.