Thursday 23 September 2021

On DSCH: Igor Levit combines large-scale works by two two highly independent, creative minds, the Russian Dmitri Shostakovich and the Lancastrian-born Scot Ronald Stevenson

On DSCH - Shostakovich, Stevenson; Igor Levit; Sony Classical
- Shostakovich, Stevenson; Igor Levit; Sony Classical

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 September 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★)
Two highly personal works, Shostakovich's interior monologue and Stevenson's universalist tribute to him brought together to devastating effect

Pierre Boulez wrote his Second Piano Sonata in 1947-1948, it is a work of fearsome technical demands, but whose violent character write Paul Griffiths says "is not just superficial: it is expressive of a whole aesthetic of annihilation, and in particular of a need to obliterate what had gone before", and this would lead to two of Boulez' key works in the 1950s, Le marteau sans maitre and Pli selon pli. At the same period Karlheinz Stockhausen was writing his highly complex Klavierstücke and Messiaen his Catalogue d'oiseaux. In a word, European contemporary piano music could be seen as pushing boundaries in all sorts of directions, with a particular emphasis on serialist and post-serialist techniques.

But we are now coming to understand that the 1950s and 1960s were not just decades where contemporary music went in one direction, styles were various from the highly traditional to the avant garde. For his new disc, On DSCH from Sony Classical, pianist Igor Levit has brought together two works, from two highly independent, creative minds, the Russian Dmitri Shostakovich and the Lancastrian-born Scot Ronald Stevenson. Both Shostakovich's 24 Preludes and Fugues (1951) and Ronald Stevenson's Passacaglia on DSCH (1963) are works which challenge the notion of what mid-Century classical music was; each composer wrote in a fiercely independent yet highly personal way. Both works are, in their way, pianistic tours de force, and few pianists indeed would consider pairing them together. This set is much more than a recital, at three substantial discs it represents a challenge to our lazy notions of how piano music developed in the mid-20th century.

Shostakovich wrote his 24 Preludes and Fugues in the early 1950s after having his music condemned by the Soviet party machine for the second time in 1948 (the first time had been after the premiere of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk). Inspired by Tatiana Nikolayeva's performance from memory of both books of Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier, Shostakovich produced a sort of musical diary, a highly personal work in which the composer turns in on himself and via 24 miniatures based on Bach's musical structures, creates a world which is a sort of intimate musical diary. 

Stevenson, by contrast, was intent in 1960s on producing a work which paid tribute to his great colleague, and Stevenson's Passacaglia is based around the Russian composer's musical mnemonic. But more than that, it is a work which manages both to circumnavigate the globe and encompass much of Western classical music history, beginning with a 'Sonata allegro' and ending with a triple fugue before the final variations, taking in a Baroque suite, a pibroch and much else besides. Like the Shostakovich, the Passacaglia is comprised of myriad smaller parts which flow together (Stevenson would describe the work as 'aqueous') into the longest single-movement piano solo in the Western classical canon.

Ronald Stevenson & Dmitri Shostakovich at 1962 Edinburgh Festival with the score of Stevenson's Passacaglia
Ronald Stevenson & Dmitri Shostakovich at 1962 Edinburgh Festival
with the score of Stevenson's Passacaglia
Stevenson presented the score to Shostakovich when they met at the 1962 Edinburgh Festival, when Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony received its UK premiere, and Benjamin Britten and Mstislav Rostropovich performed Shostakovich's Cello Sonata.

Levit brings a fearsome sense of concentration to the two and a half hour span of Shostakovich's 24 Preludes and Fugues, creating a single large-scale work from the 24 component parts and making you well believe he could play them in one sitting. This is music in which the composer has turned in on himself, but Levit explores this world in a grain of sand in a way which draws you in. There are showy moments, but it is the sense of interior power which grabs you. Levit's grasp of the music is devastating and there is a clarity to the performance which is deceptive, he masks any technical difficulties and concentrates on the music's interior qualities. The references to Shostakovich's wider repertoire and the way the different movements hint at music from his symphonies is woven into the whole, and Levit brings you back to the fierce concentration on the interior monologue that the music represents.

Tatiana Nikolayeva recorded the complete set four times (1962, 1987, 1990, 1992) and other complete performances on disc have been given by Roger Woodward, Keith Jarrett, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Konstantin Scherbakov, David Jalbert, and Olli Mustonen, so Levit has formidable company. 

Stevenson's Passacaglia is a work which in its sheer bravura has to be heard live [Levit performed it at Wigmore Hall in 2019, see my review]. Whereas Shostakovich was writing with a particular pianist in mind (Tatiana Nikolayeva premiered 24 Preludes and Fugues in 1952), Stevenson was a pianist/composer in the image of Liszt and Busoni and he puts this sense of pianistic technical bravura to work with a very 20th-century effect. Whereas Shostakovich requires focus and concentration, a digging into yourself, the way that Stevenson pushes the pianistic technique is a challenge in itself. To make the Passacaglia completely expressive, the performer needs to conquer the technical challenge and go beyond it.

The work encapsulates Stevenson's own utopian, pacifist, Communist views and it incorporates variations on Lenin's Peace, bread and land but you can easily miss it as the melody is enveloped in a welter of technical demands. There is also a salute to 'emergent Africa', and the work is aiming to be universalist.

I have to confess that I have rarely heard the Passacaglia live without managing to get somewhat lost in the middle, but on this disc Levit's performance is divided into 21 tracks which enable you to follow the structures with ease. But Levit contributes to this as well, as he brings a clarity to this music too, he never gets lost in a forest of notes but always has the wider structure in his sights. 

Stevenson recorded the work twice, the first time in South Africa where he premiered the piece in 1963 at the invitation of another Scot, Erik Chisholm who was professor of music at the University of Cape Town. John Ogden (who gave the work's British public premiere at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1966) made a recording for EMI. There have been subsequent recordings by Raymond Clarke, Murray McLachlan and James Willshire. 

Heard live, Levit's account of Stevenson's Passacaglia was devastating, and on this set he combines it with a very different work to create a pianistic challenge which seems to stretch the concept of what a piano recital is. That he succeeds and makes something so profoundly satisfying and seemingly so obvious is a testament both to Levit's technique and to his musical sympathies and intelligence. Could someone now manage to tempt him into playing and recording Stevenson's piano concertos, please?

There is a playlist on Igor Levit's YouTube channel devoted to On DSCH.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) - 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op 87(1952)
Ronald Stevenson (1928-2015) - Passacaglia on DSCH (1963)
Igor Levit (piano)
Recorded May 2020, Jesus-Christus Kirche, Berlin (Shostakovich), 4-6 February 2020, Leibniz-Saal, HCC, Hanover (Stevenson)
SONY CLASSICAL 19439809212 3 CDs [1:03:36, 1:22:06, 1:25:21]

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