The week in classical: Igor Levit; BBC SO/ Saraste; OAE/ Norrington – review

Barbican; Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Levit relished every twist and turn of Shostakovich’s marathon 24 Preludes and Fugues. Plus, a gripping start to Beethoven 250

Why or where a piece of music was written, to force a complex debate into a stubby observation, matters more with some composers than others. For Shostakovich, every note, every idea, relates to his experiences, to the turmoil of the Soviet Union, which permeated his spirit and existence. Life and art are one. Take his 24 Preludes and Fugues for solo piano, a nearly three-hour journey through every major and minor key, written in the late Stalinist period, and magnificently played at the Barbican last week by the Russian-born German virtuoso Igor Levit.

A fine pianist himself, Shostakovich gave a private performance of the cycle to the Union of Soviet Composers in 1951. Dissonant, ugly, morbid, gloomy, archaic, they complained. Nonetheless its public premiere was given in Leningrad by Tatiana Nikolayeva (1924-93), winner of the first international Johann Sebastian Bach competition in Leipzig. Shostakovich, on the jury, had been dazzled by her. He speedily wrote his own set of free-form preludes and strictly constructed fugues, inspired by Bach and dedicated to her. They remained associated with Nikolayeva until her death (she was taken ill in San Francisco while performing them).

Now others are establishing a tradition of playing this marathon complete. It’s still a rarity in the concert hall. Levit, who relishes an epic challenge, added them to his repertoire in 2017. The Barbican performance launched his featured artist series (continuing on 13 and 19 February and 7 April). Now in his early 30s, Levit is obsessed – maniacally, you might say, were he not so persuasive and assured – by the almost inhuman demands of these musical blockbusters: from Bach’s Goldberg Variations to Ronald Stevenson’s Passacaglia on DSCH – said to be the longest piano piece ever written, and itself dedicated to Shostakovich.

Igor Levit plays Shostakovich at the Barbican.
Igor Levit plays Shostakovich at the Barbican. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Levit plays head down, close to the keyboard, with a physicality that is reined in, as well as flexible. He limits his use of the sustaining pedal, often removing his feet from the pedals entirely. Each piece, whether dominated by rhythm, counterpoint or quirky or sardonic melody, encapsulates Shostakovich’s diverse musical personality. It’s as if all his symphonies and quartets had been pressed through the mesh of this small-scale form, each piece lasting a few minutes. In Levit’s hands, the architectonic impression of columns and tracery is ever present: the massive against the detailed, the weighty underpinning the delicate. Whether in the double fugue grandeur in No 4 (E minor), the luminosity of No 7 (A major), the menace of No 14 (E flat minor) or the introverted melancholy of No 23 (F major), Levit plays with brilliance, tireless vigour and imagination. He won a standing ovation.

This may be Beethoven year – he was born 250 years ago – but Shostakovich has dominated mine so far, from the National Youth Orchestra’s scorching account of Symphony No 11 (1957) at new year, to the String Quartet No 2 (1944) given hauntingly by the Jerusalem Quartet at London’s Wigmore Hall mid-January. And last week, the Symphony No 8 (1943), full of fury but with its hushed farewell lament, was played with affecting intensity by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste. Banned for a long time by the Soviet authorities on account of its bleakness, this is a work full of sorrow, and only a distant glimmer of redemption, well captured here.

Novelties came in the shape of the UK premiere of Water Atlas – surging, lapping, cyclical music, conjuring up the Finnish landscape – by Sebastian Fagerlund (b1972), and six songs by Alma Mahler-Werfel, warmly and atmospherically sung by Karen Cargill. The BBCSO played with passion and finesse throughout. If, as the BBC moves into an uncertain future, we have to fight for its survival (and that of the other BBC orchestras), I’ll be joining the frontline.

So to Beethoven: I’m pacing myself. Thinking two symphonies – No 2 and No 3, “Eroica” – would be a manageable start, I went to Tuesday’s Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment concert conducted by Roger Norrington. Now in his mid-80s, Norrington was part of the revolution that changed Beethoven performance, re-evaluating tempi, instruments, phrasing, articulation. As he reminded us, that was 35 years ago. Now he conducts from an office-style swivel chair, spinning side to side, feet lifting off the ground, but energetic as ever, the double gunshot opening to the “Eroica”, and all that followed, as compelling as you could hope: porous, spontaneous, elegant, bizarre, revolutionary. What an amazing start to the anniversary.

Star ratings (out of five)
Igor Levit
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Saraste


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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