Review: Igor Levit Wields Orchestral Power With Just a Piano

Review: Igor Levit Wields Orchestral Power With Just a Piano

Igor Levit, a pianist of awe-inspiring insight and redoubtable technique, decided to conduct himself during his solo recital at Carnegie Hall on Thursday.

He was playing the Nocturne from Hindemith’s “Suite 1922,” a collection of five genre pieces like marches and rags, and there are a few moments in which the pianist only needs to use one hand. Gesturing with his left one in a downward pressing motion, he seemed to tell himself, “Gentle, gentle,” as he plucked starlight off the page and dispersed it through the air.

When Levit is onstage, he seems to be in his own world. He scratches his nose, nods approvingly as a piece closes and shakes out the strain in his hands from a particularly grueling program. He doesn’t make a show of inviting the audience along; rather, he leaves the door cracked open for anyone who wants to join.

Such physical quirks are of a piece with the prodigious concentration and individuality of Levit’s performances. He makes music his own and illuminates it for others. His confidence and decisiveness allow a listener to hear a piece’s architecture, the way individual figures become phrases and then entire sections.

At Carnegie, Levit tested his focus and stamina with piano transcriptions of well-known symphonic works. The program opened with the relatively brief Hindemith suite before diving headlong into Ronald Stevenson’s adaptation of the Adagio from Mahler’s 10th Symphony and a nearly hourlong rendition of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, in a solo version by Liszt.

It was a display of earth-rattling strength. Octaves in contrary motion smoked with ferocity in the Hindemith, and sforzandos in the Beethoven reintroduced audiences to the elemental wildness of a composer of repertory standards. Levit’s New York appearances last season, in music by Shostakovich and Morton Feldman, deployed his concentration in service of witty élan and meditative stillness. But Thursday’s recital was pure might.

His gobsmacking “Eroica” crowned the evening. Forget four-hands piano: Levit seemed to be playing with six or eight. He generated the breadth, force and baffling volume of a full orchestra. In the clarity of his intentions, he seemed to draw slur lines in the air for all to see, masking the sheer difficulty of translating Beethoven’s symphonic potency to the piano.

From the first movement, Levit favored swashbuckling energy, but he also embraced moments of grace, carrying thirds that traditionally would come from the strings aloft on a breeze and finding joyful abandon in firmly pronounced staccatos. In its proud comportment, the Funeral March was a confrontation with mortality. The Scherzo, feather-light and flush with delight, built to a climax with tickling anticipation. Big, bold, unstoppable chords drove the Finale.

At times, Levit substituted strength for sustainment. Even with the pedal, a pianist is fighting a losing battle against evaporation as the sound simply fades away. That trade-off was most apparent in the Mahler, in which Levit sculpted the Adagio’s lovely string passages in a forthright, almost forceful way. He didn’t consistently achieve the subtle colors captured on his gorgeous recording, but he still worked magic in his clear-as-day voicings and his trills, which were plump when imitating strings and airier for woodwinds. The climax, with its sense of emotional obliteration, worked better live than on disc.

The Hindemith, at the start of the evening, was no warm-up; Levit set it aflame from the first bars. The March was brisk, headstrong and forbidding — but, in its cacophony, also a renunciation of the nefarious potential of militarism. A dark undertow swelled in the bass lines of the slinky Shimmy and the chopped-up Ragtime. Levit gave the Nocturne, the only one of the pieces that could claim to be pretty, a hard glitter in the right hand and an enchantingly soft haze in the left.

Hindemith would go on to dismiss this showy suite as a sin of his youth. But if he heard Levit’s performance — tense and muscular, with a mature, wholly unified sound — perhaps he would have changed his mind yet again.

Igor Levit

Performed on Thursday at Carnegie Hall, Manhattan.

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