sat 24/02/2018

Igor Levit, Wigmore Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Igor Levit, Wigmore Hall

Igor Levit, Wigmore Hall

Indifferent Bach but a towering performance of Busoni's 'Fantasia Contrappuntistica'

Igor Levit at the Wigmore Hall in 2015© Simon Jay Price

Igor Levit’s Wigmore Hall recital was a cerebral affair, consisting mainly of Bach and Busoni with an opener, a Passacaglia by Johann Kaspar Kerll (1627-1693). Levit is a Russian-born pianist who has lived in Hannover in Germany since the age of eight. This recital attracted a virtually full house to the Wigmore Hall. The two halves were each played without a break, with the pianist raising his hand in admonitory fashion to signal that applause before the end of the half would be unwelcome. The recital was played in its entirety from the printed score, a Bach prelude played at the end from memory, which was a welcome exception, something of a breath of fresh air.

The main event last night was the final work on the programme, a performance of Busoni’s Fantasia Contrappuntistica of 1910, marking the #Busoni150 (see image of the official celebration in the composer's birth-place in Empoli). The anniversary of Busoni’s birth in 1866, which fell on April Fool’s Day this year. Incidentally, for the anniversary-minded, the 100th anniversary of Max Reger’s death falls next Wednesday. 

The Fantasia Contrappuntistica is a work of massive proportions, lasting almost half an hour. Busoni was a virtuoso, the piece places huge technical demands. It requires physical force, with bass lines in the more emphatic moments doubled in octaves, and at one point even in tenths. It also carries a mass of instructions as to the mood and the effects which the pianist must create: “anxious,” or “scary” or “like soft trumpets,” or, most mind-bendingly, “very expressively but with an emotion suppressed.” 

Levit gave a towering performance of it, and marked out its structure well. The fiendishly complex fugues, where the line to be emphasized is always clearly marked, brought out some very lucid playing. Levit also brought wonderful repose to the point where the fugues end and where the variations begin. It was a performance to be admired for its authority and its eloquence. In the other Busoni work, the Fantasia after Bach, Levit brought out darker colours – it is a work written in memory of the composer’s father.  

The Bach on the programme consisted of movements from the Musical Offering. In the second half that meant a lot of hanging around in that “saddest of keys” (Spinal Tap), D minor, which then gave Levit the opportunity to make the most of the harmonically more mobile and unsettling Contrapuntus 11.

Levit played the opener by Kerll with an extreme use of rubato, and I also found some of the predilections and mannerisms his Bach playing quite difficult to take. The endings of pieces are semaphored early, by applying the brake and killing the forward momentum of the harmonic rhythm far earlier than is necessary. Every ending is then played out as a valedictory statement, and the final cadences become positively beatific. For me that was anything but transcendent. 

It would have been impossible to come away from this recital unimpressed by Levit's playing; I just wish I could have been more moved by it.   

I found some of the predilections and mannerisms his Bach playing quite difficult to take


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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