thu 16/08/2018

Igor Levit, Wigmore Hall review – music for the ages | reviews, news & interviews

Igor Levit, Wigmore Hall review – music for the ages

Igor Levit, Wigmore Hall review – music for the ages

New work for Rzewski’s 80th a puzzling affair but performed with dedication and authority

Igor Levit: 'a master of atmosphere'Simon Jay Price

Frederic Rzewski marked his 80th birthday with a visit to the Wigmore Hall, for the premiere of his aptly titled Ages. The pianist Igor Levit is an ardent champion of Rzewski’s music and was the prime mover behind the commission (though it was financed by the Wigmore Hall with the support of Annette Scawen Morreau), and the piece was clearly written to showcase his many strengths. Levit is a master of atmosphere, and has a keen sense of musical drama, both of which were much in evidence, and much needed, in this sprawling, hour-long work.

Rzewski (pictured below) has always been an eclectic composer, taking styles and ideas, from historical allusions to post-tonal harmonies, and combining them into lively and virtuosic piano works. Ages continues that tradition, but now the disparate strands seem to be pulling in different directions, the style unsettled and erratic. Brief quotes appear, but are immediately subsumed back into the texture: the B-A-C-H monogram is a leitmotif, and the music continually returns to cadential figures from The Well-Tempered Clavier, but we also hear snatches of the Grosse Fuge, The Rite of Spring – all the usual suspects. Most surprisingly, the tight construction and virtuosic passagework of Rzewski’s earlier music here gives way to slow-moving textures, only occasionally coalescing into rhythmically focused episodes. On top of all this, Rzewski adds a range of extended techniques and sound effects. The work begins with the lid being slammed down on the keys with the sustain pedal down, and on regular occasions later on, the lid is again closed, for Levit to tap rhythmically. He also sings, or rather moans under his breath, and plays musical toys – a cow moo canister, a duck call, some electronic explosion sound effects. Frederic RzewskiWhat does it all mean? Rzewski tells us in his nebulous programme note that “the music does not ‘mean’ anything”, although he makes a vague connection between the sound effects and the ages of man, and the historical allusions to the ages of history. But the overall impression is of freely rhapsodic writing, with little concern for proportion or direction, the composer luxuriating in the glorious pianism of his dedicated performer. It held the capacity Wigmore audience in rapt and silent concentration for its full hour, a testament, no doubt, to Levit’s gift for musical theatre as much as to the score itself.

Three Mendelssohn Songs Without Words opened the second half. Levit’s sense of melodic line shone here, his rubato broad and uninhibited, offering generous phrasing. His left hand was heavy, though, in the accompanying figures, more a succession of notes than the required blend. Fortunately, that combination of heavy bass and floating melody proved perfect for the final work, Ronald Stevenson’s piano transcription of the Adagio first movement of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. Stevenson gives a modest account of Mahler’s orchestral textures, rarely employing tremolos or large broken chords to replicate the sonorities, and instead relying on the distinctive harmonic progressions to convey the atmosphere.

Like the Rzewski, this score seemed custom-made for Levit’s brand of pianism. The unaccompanied viola opening demonstrated both his luminous touch and his intuitive feel for phrase shaping. Levit’s ability to maintain a sense of atmosphere across long spans was also invaluable, especially as Stevenson often leaves the slow-moving chord progressions unadorned and at the mercy of the piano’s decay. But that was never a problem, as Levit patiently guided the ear through the harmonic labyrinth. And the ending was ideal, the final statements of the melody bathed in a subdued glow of quiet but immaculately voiced harmony. Exquisite.

@saquabote

The Mahler ended beautifully, its final statements bathed in a subdued glow of immaculately voiced harmony

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters