The pianist Igor Levit makes his Seattle debut with a hefty program of Bach, Schubert, Beethoven and Prokofiev at Meany Hall on Wednesday, Feb. 10.
It’s common practice in the classical-music world — and an often annoying one — to introduce young soloists by reeling off a litany of their competition prizes, strung together like a list of battles won.
But Igor Levit has been winning attention in the cutthroat arena of virtuoso pianists through a remarkable chorus of critical praise for his searching intellect and maturity of purpose — qualities that don’t necessarily shine at competitions.
Reviewing his Southern California debut last year, Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed proclaimed: “He is the future.”
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 10, Meany Hall, University of Washington, Seattle; $41-$46 (206-543-4880 or uwworldseries.org).
Seattle audiences will finally get a chance to experience the 28-year-old pianist’s artistry live Feb. 10, when Levit makes his local debut in a recital as part of the UW President’s Piano series at Meany Hall.
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Born near the end of the Soviet Union to a Jewish-Russian family in Nizhny Novgorod, Levit started learning piano from his mother at the age of 3. The family settled in Hanover when he was 8, and Levit continues to make his home in Germany. Just last month, he relocated to Berlin.
Along with the competition fixation, pianophiles are especially notorious for trying to establish pedigrees. Does he identify more with the “Russian School” or with German traditions, given his training at the Hanover Academy of Music?
Levit bristles at attempts to categorize and classify. “Politically I think we are, unfortunately, seeing a great deal of nationalism again,” he said by phone from Germany. “But the 21st century is not about that. If there is a school here or there, I couldn’t care less about that.”
Levit can point to an impressive set of laurels — four awards at the Arthur Rubinstein Competition in Tel Aviv, for example, where he was the youngest contestant to date. Yet what stands out when you first encounter his work is an uncompromising sense of engagement, of communicating ideas of vital importance today no matter when they were composed.
“The music I feel closest to is the music which is about us and our struggles as humans,” Levit said. For his current tour, the pianist has chosen composers he is convinced illustrate what the Twittersphere likes to call “relatability.” At Meany, he will play J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 4, Schubert’s “Moments Musicaux,” Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata (Op. 31, no. 2) and the powerhouse Seventh Sonata of Prokofiev.
Such a hefty program is second nature to Levit. He launched his recording contract with Sony with a highly acclaimed two-CD set of Beethoven’s last five sonatas, which he followed with another two ambitious projects: Bach’s six partitas for keyboard and, last fall, a juxtaposition of three monumental sets of variations (Bach’s “Goldbergs,” Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations and Frederic Rzewski’s “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” from 1975).
Levit leaves no doubt that he regards the American composer Rzewski’s politically tinged variations — on a popular Chilean song associated with Salvador Allende — to be the modern equal of those masterpieces by Bach and Beethoven. He describes Rzewski as “one of the most significant contemporary composers: He sees what is happening in the world today and writes music influenced by that.”
For Levit, that sense of connection with life as we actually encounter it informs the familiar items in his repertory just as crucially. He likes to refer to the “existential” questioning in Beethoven’s music and similarly considers Bach a font of meaning for the things that really matter. If Prokofiev’s Seventh is a more obvious case — it’s one of the three piano sonatas the Russian wrote during World War II — Levit argues it’s a mistake to regard Schubert as escapist Biedermeier fare.
“There’s a lot I could say about Schubert living in the age of Metternich, in a time of incredible censorship,” Levit said. “The music is not just a decoration that we enjoy. It helps us to understand ourselves. It establishes a narrative that is alive and speaks to us. That’s what I’m sharing when I play.”