IIf you collected information about the Russian-German pianist Igor Levit, surely he can’t resist a marathon. The requirements of performing long works, alone on stage, need not be specified. Levit’s motivation, evident in every note he plays, is music. At the start of lockdown in 2020, when the world was in shock and the technology itself was out of control, Levit embarked on nightly concerts broadcast live from his home in Berlin for more than 10 weeks . In addition to the standard repertoire, he plays epic compositions that are not very daring to touch, whether it is the piano concerto by Ferruccio Busoni (a mere 75 minutes) or that of Erik Satie. vexations (20 hours).
At Wigmore Hall last week, Levit picked up two repertoire giants he’s recorded and performed live. This makes the achievement no less extraordinary. It began on Monday with Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op 87, with Passacaglia on DSCH by Scottish composer Ronald Stevenson (1928-2015) two nights later.
This tribute to Shostakovich is built around the motif of the Russian composer’s four-note name (we’ll leave the decoding, via Cyrillic script and German notation, for another day). Stevenson uses the motto hundreds of times, with extravagant ingenuity. Pianistically, apart from the singing moments, the Passacaglia throws the player to the four winds, with blizzards of notes and whirlwinds of rhythmic challenges to contend with. On the page it’s clear, structured, detailed, asking the piano to sound like a guitar, a timpani, a trumpet; distant, heavy, primal.
Writing the work in 1961 when Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin went into space, Stevenson instructed: with a sense of space, “quasi gagarinesco.” Yes, call it maverick. Visionary, Marxist, conscientious objector, this singular composer should be better known. Levit is the best of ambassadors, inviting us to embrace the curiosities of music and discover its powerful beauty.
Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues formed the basis of Shostakovich’s Opus 87. The perspective, combining free-form prelude and formal fugue in each key, oscillates between entity and detail. A comparison might be the double helix in the swirling carapace of Tatlin’s Tower, the gigantic Soviet Constructivist artwork proposed for Shostakovich’s hometown of St. Petersburg, but never built. Crushed by the Union of Composers when they heard his “ugly” work, Shostakovich not only completed his mighty edifice, but created a work of art for posterity.
Levit showed, with sparkling clarity, the ground covered by these pieces: sometimes playful ditty, sometimes majestic oratory, sometimes glimpse of Tchaikovsky or choral contemplation of Bach. The prelude in D flat, a waltz, had a mechanical precision, the ticking passing between the hands, as if suspended. The sweeping final fugue hurled itself against a stunned audience, who could only spring to their feet once Levit, finally raising his hands from the keyboard, let us know it was over.
St Martin-in-the-Fields, the colonnaded landmark on the north-east corner of Trafalgar Square, through which all tourists pass, has been reinvigorated as a top gig venue, with new partnerships with , among others, John Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi Choir and Orchestras. In its HP Futures series, exceptional artists will give solo recitals. The constant roar of traffic and trains compels us to listen more carefully than ever, especially if the soloist is a guitarist whispering the most hushed and mysterious of lute music.
The Edinburgh-born virtuoso Sean Shibe opened his recital – titled “Baroque Meets Minimalism” – with a selection of 17th-century Scottish lute manuscripts, remade in the subtly ornate and poetic manner of this guitarist. In Bach’s Suite for Lute in E Minor, BWV 996, every twist of counterpoint, every voice, was clear and unforced. For this part of the recital, Shibe used an instrument made by Simon Ambridge in 2011, a copy of the Hauser classic played by pioneering guitarists of the past, Segovia and Julian Bream.
He then switched to electric guitar, first to the cutaway Fender Stratocaster, then to a PRS Custom 24-08. You have to be an insider to appreciate the different specs, but enjoying the variety is part of the Shibe experience. Messiaen’s motet O sacrum convivium (1937) was freshly ecstatic, echoing around the building. In Push my thumb through a plate by Oliver Leith (born 1990), originally for harp, now in a new version for guitar, Shibe used the tuning pegs to slowly shout in and out of auditory focus, a meditation on flow and inconstancy. (Leith’s new opera about Kurt Cobain was announced last week for ROH’s Linbury Theater next season.)
He is a restrained performer, as if staying in his own magic circle of energy, keeping everything in store for the music. Finally, he captivated with Steve Reich Electric counterpoint (1987). Performing live against a band of himself playing a dozen backing guitar parts, Shibe reminded us of the power of one.
Star ratings (out of five)
Igor Levit ★★★★★
Sean Shibe ★★★★