Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Thrilling pianism: Igor Levit in Ronald Stevenson's Passacaglia

Igor Levit
Igor Levit
Ronald Stevenson Passacaglia on DSCH; Igor Levit; Wigmore Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 27 May 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Stevenson's astonishing work in an evening of thrilling pianism

Pianist Igor Levit has been performing large-scale keyboard works at the Wigmore Hall, and on Monday 27 May 2019 he followed up Bach, Beethoven and Rzewski, with perhaps the largest single-movement work for piano solo, Ronald Stevenson's Passacaglia on DSCH, a piece which does not make it into the concert halls particularly often.

It is an astonishing piece, 80 minutes or so in length (I think Levit's was closer to 90) and a challenge for both performer and listener. Stevenson bases the work on Shostakovich's own mnemonic, DSCH (D, E flat, C, B natural) and structures the passacaglia as a journey through piano history. The various sections incorporate a sonata movement, a baroque suite, a triple fugues, Etudes, variations, a symphonic march and more. But more than that it is also a digest of performing styles, and is infused with Stevenson's personality both as a composer and pianist.

A virtuoso performer in the grand tradition, Stevenson had a wide repertoire when it came to piano music. One great influence was Busoni (Busoni the composer is a strong factor in part of the Passacaglia), another was Percy Grainger, yet you could encounter a variety of others in Stevenson's recitals. Careful listeners at Monday's concert might spot a number of virtuoso influences woven in, even Paderewski at one point, and the writing for left hand alone made me think of Godowsky.

But the Passacaglia is far more than a dry compendium of musical styles, Stevenson weaves everything through his own particular ear. That the music moves constantly forward is partly to do with they way that Stevenson articulates the DSCH motif, and also how he combines it with other themes. This is a work which belies its length, and the great virtue of Levitt's performance of it was that it was riveting.

It goes without saying that this work is a technical challenge, but little is there for its own sake and Levitt displayed both an unerring sense of bravura when necessary, with a devastating understanding of the essential structure and emotion of the piece. There were some moments when I felt that he dwelt and extended moments in ways which Stevenson would not have, but this was Levitt we were listening to and he created his own sound world.

It is also an intellectually challenging piece. Despite the bravura nature of the work with Stevenson, politics was rarely far away and the work includes a set of variations of Lenin's 1917 slogan 'Peace, Bread and the Land', a triple fugue 'in memory of the six million' killed by the Nazis, and a wry mention of Yuri Gagarin (who was the first man in space in 1961). Yet there is also a fandango, moments when the pianist has to play inside the piano, and etudes where the spirit of Chopin hovered.

We were lucky enough to be sitting where we  could see Levitt clearly and were able to watch the sheer bravura of the technical challenge, as well as the physical stamina required to created an 80 minutes plus single movement. As a pianist Ronald Stevenson had the ability to be profoundly expressive when playing very loudly, and this work perhaps reflected an element of this. Levitt's account of the work was very loud, but wonderfully, expressively so.

This was an all-enveloping performance of a work which, like Mahler's view of the symphony, really did encompass the whole world. A word of credit for Levitt's page turner, a role in this work which rises to a level of challenge rarely seen on the concert platform.

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