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Igor Levit plays variations by Bach, Beethoven and Rzewski

'Levit squares up to the exhilarating mix with pitch-perfect acuity and aplomb'

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

Bach • Beethoven • Rzewski
JS Bach: Goldberg Variations; Beethoven: Diabelli Variations; Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated
Igor Levit
Sony Classical 88875060962

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The liner notes for Igor Levit’s typically audacious new release describes it as a ‘triathlon’; but since that particular feat of endurance salutes prowess in three contrasting sports, the concept of ‘marathon’ might have proved the better analogy. Levit is in pursuit of a single discipline, and road-tests the notion of variation to within an inch of its life across three centuries with three sets that represent the ne plus ultra of the technique and that metaphysically go way beyond merely taking a musical line for a walk. Is it a tribute to Frederic Rzewski that, heard immediately after the Diabellis, The People United Will Never Be Defeated stands its ground so uncowed? Maybe it’s a tribute to Levit’s mesmerising pianism? Probably both.

Unusually for a pianist, Levit’s Bach is grounded in Palestrina and Josquin, as he describes in the booklet notes; but for all that he’s also had a few harpsichord lessons, his Goldbergs are closest in spirit to pianist Lars Vogt’s recent clear-sighted, non-fussy recording on Ondine. The Aria sings without affectation as if to emphasise that what follows isn’t about the theme but what happens to it. And what happens is always judiciously plotted. The first minor-key variation never over-emotes; Variation XX’s rollercoaster grips; and if the French Ouverture wears its court clothes a tad self-consciously, its 3/8 pendant is manifestly unstarchy.

Unstarchy too is Levit’s approach to Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations which have a mordant wit hard-wired into the very DNA of Diabelli’s insouciant little waltz. Not since Andreas Staier’s version on fortepiano for Harmonia Mundi has there been such a riveting dissection of Beethoven’s amused quirkiness – Variation X is almost laugh-out-loud amusing, and the Scarlattian Variation VI buzzes like wasps in a jar. That said, the innigkeit of Variation XXII is spellbinding, and in Variation III Levit contrives a wonderfully supple and calm study in compression that teases both harmonically and metrically.

As for the Rzewski, never has 1970s agitprop sounded so compelling, its ‘people’ united under a stylistically capacious big tent that embraces anything from cheesy pop to doughty Darmstadt-esque trenchancy, bravura Liszt and Musorgsky to the concise intensity of Kurtág. Whether in the edge of seat delicacy of Variation I or the breathtaking fleet fingerwork of Variation XXI, Levit squares up to the exhilarating mix with pitch-perfect acuity and aplomb. He introduced himself as a Sony artist with late Beethoven, then Bach. If he plans to advance his discography by accretion, where next after this towering trio? Whatever follows, hang on tight: it should prove quite a ride.

Paul Riley

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