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New Year, New Leaf: Igor Levit at Carnegie Hall

Igor Levit at Carnegie Hall
Well, it's been a rough couple of months here in NYC. Just when we thought we were almost done with COVID-19, it came roaring back around Thanksgiving, shutting down bars, restaurants - and lots of live music. This month alone has seen the cancellation of both the PROTOTYPE opera festival (they say it's "postponed") and the Winter JazzFest Marathon (which is now the "Virtual Marathon," which started this week.) Not to mention seemingly half the shows I see listed on Ohmyrockness.

The city's opera and concert halls, on the other hand, have largely kept their doors open, which is ironic given the relative size of their auditoriums and potential risk of infection. Guess some folks like to freak out more about Omicron than others. (Full disclosure: I caught COVID just before Christmas, and experienced relatively mild symptoms for about a week. Thank you, Pfizer!)

One of those venues that's persevered is Carnegie Hall, which has navigated this year's various COVID-related travel restrictions by filling its three stages with soloists, chamber groups, and the occasional local orchestra. To be frank, it's not been a banner year of programming thus far. BUT, things are ramping up quickly here in 2022, with stalwarts such as the Vienna Philharmonic, Royal Philharmonic, and the Emerson String Quartet all set to perform in the coming weeks. 

Safety is of course a top priority at Carnegie, and was in clear evidence Thursday night by the line snaking around the corner of 57th and 7th to check ID's and proofs of vaccination. Fair warning: all tickets now come with a designated entry time and one of several designated entrances, though I'd recommend getting there at least a half hour before curtain regardless of what your ticket says. And, for God's sake, don't forget your mask!

Carnegie Hall Security Line, 1/13/22I was at Carnegie on Thursday for the first time since opening night to hear the celebrated Russian-German pianist Igor Levit, whom Alex Ross calls, "perhaps the most formidable virtuoso of the younger generation." A regular soloist with everyone from the Vienna Phil to the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, as well as a globetrotting solo performer, Levit achieved a whole new level of recognition in 2020 when he live streamed 53 house concerts ("Hauskonzerte") from his Berlin apartment, performing everyone from Bach to Billy Joel. Aside from the wide praise and multiple awards he received for his gesture, including Germany's Order of Merit, it made Levit rethink everything about the traditional concert experience. 


“When I started doing these house concerts,” he told Ross, “I realized that every single problem I had ever had with the performing world suddenly disappeared. I never really cared about acoustics. I never cared that much about the quality of the piano. All I wanted to do was play... Everything is getting reduced to the essential thing of being there and playing."

Walking onstage to a nearly full Stern Auditorium, Levit was dressed much closer to what he would wear during one of his house concerts than your typical concert attire: unbuttoned black collared shirt, black t-shirt, black Selvedge jeans. He had the casual, confident air of someone who knows this music - not to mention reams of jazz, rock and hip hop - inside and out. 

Igor Levit at Carnegie Hall
Photo: Steven Pisano

First up was Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 30, which appeared on Levit's debut album of the last five Beethoven sonatas, recorded when he was only 24. (He's 34 now.) “I know there is this attitude that you are supposed to wait until you are sixty-five and have seen life and the world and suffering before you approach late Beethoven," Levit told Ross. "But I know thirteen-year-olds who know a level of suffering that these full-of-themselves, elegant mid-sixties artists have absolutely no fucking idea about. Give me a break!"   

Levit played the first movement with plenty of pedal, smoothing out the jagged edges while making the following Prestissimo sound all the more explosive by contrast. Levit contorted himself into a human "C", shifting almost completely sideways on the piano bench. The last movement, a set of six variations on a tender theme, displayed Levit's extraordinary range, plunging from a manic series of runs to a hushed ending that felt suspended in mid-air.

Levit met the jazz pianist Fred Hersch (who streamed his own series of home shows during the early days of the pandemic) when he went to one of Hersch's trio shows a few years ago at the Village Vanguard. Levit ended up spending the following afternoon at Hersch's downtown loft, where they played for each other and struck up a friendship that eventually resulted in Levit asking Hersch to write a piece for him. The result was Variations on a Folksong, which received its world premiere on this concert. Based on the 19th century folksong "O Shenandoah", the theme is simple and sweet, with none of the 20 variations that follow straying very far from that melodic palette. 

"Sometimes, I think I should be able to write...wild upper-structure harmony," Hersch says in the program notes. "But, then I think again, 'Does it really matter?'" (Answer: No.)

Still, there were some surprising moments among the variations: a quick, jumpy bit that had an almost Russian tinge; a stormy passage full of vibrato; a hushed variation with extended pauses. The work ended with a repeat of the song, but grander, more majestic, like the expansive American West it describes. Given the complicated history of concert music over the past century, it's an act of artistic courage to write something so simple and sincere, and the audience rewarded Hersch with a warm ovation.Fred hersch, Igot Levit, Carnegie HallThe prelude of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, with its famous four note "Tristan Chord" and multiple subsequent dissonances, is one of the most groundbreaking themes in all of music. In 1978, Hungarian pianist Zoltán Kocsis arranged the prelude for solo piano, which Levit played here in its Carnegie Hall premiere. Compared to the orchestral version, the piano was haunting, enigmatic, full of pregnant pauses that slowed to a near-halt, even fooling some audience members into early applause.

Levit segued directly from Wagner to Liszt's Piano Sonata in B Minor (1852), a fiendish masterpiece that is so technically challenging, it wasn't premiered until four years after it was written. Written as a single half-hour movement, the music begins simply with a series of lower register chords, but develops quickly into a flurry of notes that explode from the keyboard. Unlike some pianists who specialize in the Romantic piano repertoire, Levit didn't indulge in histrionics, focusing his energy on the music rather than a bunch of wild gestures. As with the rest of the program, the music went out low and slow, ending with a repeated triad that made me think of Messiaen, a full century later.

After several curtain calls, Levit ended the concert with a perfectly chosen encore: Wagner's "Liebestod" from Tristan und Isolde, in an arrangement by Liszt, Wagner's soon-to-be-father-in-law. "Liebestod" roughly translates as "Love-Death" and I couldn't help thinking this was Levit's way of memorializing all of those we've lost over the past two years. (It appeared on Levit's 2018 release Life, dedicated to his close friend Hannes Malte Mahler who was killed in a bike accident two years earlier.) Despite the somber premise, the music conveys an almost ecstatic joy: a hope, perhaps, that we'll be reunited someday with those who've left us far too soon. For me, the joy was far more immediate: it was simply being there, in that grand hall, witnessing this latest installment in a century full of musical miracles. I promise it won't be so long till the next time. 

Igor Levit at Carnegie Hall
Levit returns to Carnegie May 6 to perform Brahms 1st Piano Concerto with the NY Phil and Jaap van Zweden. Tickets and info here

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