Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations [77:36]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Diabelli Variations [53:54]
Frederic RZEWSKI (b. 1938)
The People United Will Never Be Defeated! [62:20]
Igor Levit (piano)
rec. Funkhaus Nalepastrasse, Berlin, 6-9 August 2015 (Bach); 29 January-1 February 2015 (Beethoven); 1-4 March 2015 (Rzewski)
SONY CLASSICAL 88875 060962 [3 CDs: 77:36 + 53:54 + 62:20]

In 2013 the twenty-seven year old Russian-German pianist Igor Levit burst onto the scene with a sensational recording of Beethoven’s late piano sonatas (28-32). A year later it was Bach’s six keyboard partitas, again receiving considerable critical acclaim. In what now seems to be becoming an anticipated yearly event, 2015 has been another fruitful year for the pianist with this 3 CD release, where the variation form takes centre-stage. A closer look reveals a unifying element between the three works. Rzewski’s variations were written as a companion piece to the Diabelli Variations, and Beethoven looked to Bach’s Goldberg Variations as a model for his. Rzewski’s 36 variations are divided into six groups of six, and in the final variation he restates the original theme as Bach does, now viewed in the light of what has gone before.

Levit’s Goldberg Variations are one of the finest traversals I have heard. The cycle gets off to a positive start with the theme introduced at a nicely gauged tempo. This establishes an agreeable and comfortable pacing, which is sustained throughout. Unmannered, refined and intelligently approached, this performance certainly sets the bar high. There’s a logical sense of structure and architecture in this purposeful reading. Contrapuntal lines are teased out cleanly and clearly, and phrasing seems instinctively nuanced. Ornamentation, when applied, is idiomatic and stylish. I love the warm sound and evenness of tone that Levit produces, made all the more endearing by the sympathetic acoustic of the Funkhaus Nalepastrasse, Berlin.

It is a source of wonder how Beethoven transformed Diabelli’s mundane and trivial waltz theme into a set of 33 variations; Alfred Brendel has described it as ‘the greatest of all piano works’. Levit’s performance which, for me, stands shoulder to shoulder with Brendel’s latter two recordings, showcases the inventiveness and imaginative skill of the composer. Aside from the stunning virtuosity, there’s the expert way the pianist characterizes each individual variation. Following the rhythmic vitality of the theme, he gauges the heavy accents of Variation 1 to perfection. Then there’s the parody of Variation 22, referencing Leporello's aria at the beginning of Mozart's Don Giovanni, carried off with wry humour. In contrast, Variations 29, 30 and 31 have a profound sense of melancholy in Levit’s dark and sombre realization. The performance truly asserts William Kinderman’s description that ‘No other work by Beethoven is so rich in allusion, humor, and parody.’

Finally, the pianist turns his hand to Frederic Rzewski’s ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated’, a set of 36 variations on the Chilean song ‘El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!’ by Sergio Ortega; the Chilean folk group Quilapayún supplied the words. It was composed in 1975 in protest at the 1973 overthrow of the Chilean government of Salvador Allende, and the installation of General Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship. The work is a tribute to the Chilean people’s struggle against this repressive regime. It was commissioned and premiered by the American pianist Ursula Oppens, who made the first recording in 1979; it received a Grammy nomination. Levit gives an inspired performance drawing on his plentiful reserves of imagination and technical skill. The drama and surprise he injects grab you by the scuff of the neck. In the wide range of styles employed, one can detect influences of jazz, bebop and pointillism. Clearly John Cage has been an influence with some shouts, whistles and piano lid slamming thrown in for good measure. Yet, in Levit’s hands, nothing draws attention to itself or appears contrived; everything evolves naturally and spontaneously. He certainly breaths life, vitality and energy into the score.

As this is the only version of Rzewski’s opus I have heard, I am not in a position to offer any comparisons. I’m surprised how well-served the Variations are on CD. I counted several alternatives, including two by Ursula Oppens (Vanguard and Cedille) which, together with the composer’s own recording (Hat Hut Records), could be considered definitive. Other pianists who have taken up the reins are Marc-André Hamelin (Hyperion), Ralph van Raat (Naxos), Stephen Drury (New Albion), Kai Schumacher (Wergo) and Ole Kiilerich (Bridge).

As is the case with Levit’s previous two releases, the sound quality is excellent in every way, being spacious, vivid and well-balanced. Comprehensive annotations are in German and English. This has been an ambitious project, unquestionably an unmitigated success, a sure sign that Levit’s star continues on its ascendancy.
Stephen Greenbank

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