Saturday, July 13, 2024

Igor Levit’s Variations (Bach, Beethoven, Rzewski)

Even though I had been thinking of reviewing this 3CD set, the fact that it was recently awarded the Gramophone Recording of the Year Award, made me finalise my decision. Levit’s achievement here is remarkable. He presents us immaculate performances of three of the greatest sets of variations. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and Rzewski’s The People United Can Never Be Defeated! (1975).

Even though the three different sets of variations have nothing in common Levit manages to present a highly intellectual, distilled reading. That is not to say that these performances are devoid of passion. No, there is plenty of emotion to be found. However, it is the pianist’s thoughtful, precise playing that stands out in all three works. The Diabellis, in particular, are among the most satisfying performances I have heard. Levit seems to understand the inner structure of this work completely: when I first listened to his recording I thought this is the way the Diabellis should be played. My other favourite recording is that of Kovacevich on Onyx but that is an entirely different reading. Where Kovacevich uses more rubato and freedom in sometimes extreme choices of tempi, Levit uncovers the structure of the whole set more clearly.

The Rzewski set of variations is equally impressive. It is a piece that apparently Levit knows very well from a young age. This is obvious in his mature interpretation where he often chooses to emphasise rhythms and phrases. It is a very impressive work on its own and Levit’s interpretation makes it even more special.

As for the Goldbergs, Levit’s clear pianism underlines every single note, making the fugue sections particularly clear. Yes, I have to admit, the Goldbergs demand more than note-perfect pianism. For this reason, one might prefer Perahia’s  recording on Sony for more heartfelt emotion or, of course, Gould’s legendary 1981 performance despite his extreme choices of tempo and annoying humming. However, I am not saying Levit’s performance is lagging behind. On the contrary, his remains one of the best among a very crowded field. Indeed, I find it to be one of the most commanding versions of this piece, one I will be returning to very often.

There you have it then. A 3 CD set that is a unique treat and a recording to cherish. It rightly deserves the Gramophone Recording of the Year Award and for me it remains a remarkable achievement. And only to think that Levit recorded this at the age of 28!

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