A while back I was trying to get a sense of the level of artistry of a couple of new pianists coming on the scene named Yuja Wang and Khatia Buniatishvili. They were both seeing a lot of publicity and interviews, but a lot of it focussed on their personal stories and image. Yuja Wang in particular got a lot of initial publicity for wearing very short skirts. So I went to YouTube to see what I could hear and got a lot of concertos and flashy repertoire. Yes, you can get a sense of the technique from that, but not much sense of the real artistry. Especially with the piano, which is a machine for producing a lot of notes quickly, you have to look for repertoire with more substance. So I searched around for some clips of Bach and Beethoven. Nothing. Nada. Hm, that's interesting. Of course, this year Yuja Wang has been touring with the Hammerklavier Sonata so that's something we can listen to. I compared hers and Grigory Sokolov's performances in this recent post.
But when it comes to Igor Levit, who is the same age as Yuja Wang, by the way, twenty-nine, there really is no difficulty trying to find him playing substantial repertoire: he plays nothing else! His debut album on Sony was two discs of the late Beethoven piano sonatas and already reviewers were saying "what can he do for an encore?" The answer was his second Sony album, also two discs, this time of all the Bach Partitas. His most recent, which just won the Gramophone Album of the Year for 2016, is three discs of the Bach Goldberg Variations, the Beethoven Diabelli Variations and the Rzewski The People United Will Never Be Defeated variations. Good lord! Now what will he do next?
I spent yesterday listening through this last album a couple of times. Honestly, I have not heard a musician with this level of intense and profound artistry since Grigory Sokolov. Levit is very different of course: he is a young man and often it is the sheer energy that impresses. These are not polite performances. The Diabelli Variations especially are played with such edgy intensity that they sound almost atonal in places. The Rzewski is manic to an extreme and in the next moment deliberate and restrained. The Bach is both lovely and haunting and even at times like riding in a Ferrari at full acceleration. There is no need to worry about the same old same old repertoire--Levit finds a great deal in these works to convey with new expression. Actually, that is precisely why these pieces (well, not the Rzewski yet) are so highly respected: they are bottomless wells of artistic truth.
In listening to Igor Levit you are listening to the pianist who really is the best of the younger generation (at least of the ones I have heard). And looking back at that fulsome tribute to Yuja Wang in the New Yorker just last week, you realize that they are talking about their local artist (she lives in Manhattan) who has made good and looks good while doing it. But Mr. Levit is in another ball park entirely. Here he is playing the Aria from the Goldbergs: