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 Big Piano Variations, a great new recording of Bach, Beethoven and Rzewski



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.