A Beethoven Specialist of Our Time
Dr. Louis Lee
The present is an era for generalists. Long gone are the days of musical spokesmen – never mind Glenn Gould and his still famous recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, who can fail to think of the much-beloved Fou Ts’ong (sadly claimed by Covid-19 not long ago) when it comes to Chopin? As for Schubert, how about Radu Lupu, another of the ‘greats’ who just left us but whose heyday already feels so distant. Breadth is the watchword of the times.
Step forward the Russo-German pianist Igor Levit, who announced himself on the world stage with a reference set of Beethoven piano sonata recordings at the grand old age of 32. A specialist after all, then.
So much about labelling. A Beethoven specialist, a Russo-German pianist? Instead, the three labels the pianist has chosen for himself – visit his official website – are:
The labels are so loud that one must click on them in order to browse the site. Lovers of the keyboard are immediately reminded of a similar classic line from Fu Lei’s Letters to his Son, in which the legendary Balzac and Rolland translator famously gave fatherly advice to none other than said Chopin specialist Fou Ts’ong: “First, learn to be a man proper; then, an artist; thereafter, a musician; only at last, a pianist.” The beliefs of Levit and Fu Père make an interesting contrast, and highlight interesting cultural differences, if not artistic philosophies, between the East and the West. (An aside: that a Beethoven specialist – be that as it may – refers to himself as European reminds one of how European, not German, the composer’s oeuvre really is.)
Citizen first and foremost. Levit was forced to cancel all his various engagements following the Covid-19 outbreak. His impulse to continue to play during the extraordinary turn of events in March 2020 led to the idea of staging live performances on Twitter from his central Berlin home, using the simplest of recording set up. His now famous Hauskonzerte, or House Concerts, ended up numbering 53 in total, and provided spiritual respite to all in quarantine. The “citizen, European, and pianist” also used his concerts to publicise to the world the plight of musicians less fortunate than he.
Levit admitted underestimating the impact of his concerts. What started as a simple civic act of sharing music turned into a social phenomenon that caught the attention of Frank-Walter Steinmeier, President of the Federal Republic of Germany, who promptly invited Levit to stream one such lockdown concert from presidential residence of Schloss Bellevue (not far from the hallowed Philharmonie where music was supposed to be played in normal days). Levit chose to perform the Waldstein sonata, the piece with which he launched the first Hauskonzert (and also the crowning piece of his all-Beethoven recital in Hong Kong). Before the livestream, he took pains to remark that the Waldstein was the most life-enhancing piece that he knew in the entire piano repertoire – whether it is for the opening movement’s “heartbeat”, the intimacy, grace, and love of the middle, and the affirmation of life in the hymn-like finale.
Classical music stirred thousands in Europe in the Second World War. Through Levit’s effort, it also kept many going.
But what of the actual playing? Check out said presidential Hauskonzert on Levit’s YouTube channel, and you will be struck by Levit’s disciplined spontaneity – characterised by pristine tone colour, super-clean lines, and a formidable drive that never threatens to get out of control. Twenty-first century European intellectualism replaces nobleness and headstrong individuality of the twentieth. Beethoven of our era: vital, clear-headed, necessary.
The Hong Kong recital on 21 November will begin with two minor-keyed numbers, No.17 Tempest (which, according to Levit, depicts life’s vicissitudes) and No.8, the popular Pathétique. The playful and cheery No.25 precedes the Waldstein in the second half. Human triumph over darkness – Covid-19, that is? Whatever of Levit’s underlying programmatic rationale, the recital shall be a celebration of the humanistic spirit of Beethoven by one of the most remarkable pianists – citizen, European – of our time.
An all-Beethoven Programme
Piano Sonata No. 17 in D minor, Op. 31, No. 2, “The Tempest”
Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13, “Pathétique”
Piano Sonata No. 25 in G, Op. 79
Piano Sonata No. 21 in C, Op. 53, “Waldstein”
The performance will run for about 1 hour and 30 minutes including a 15-minute intermission.
Audience is strongly advised to arrive punctually. Latecomers will only be admitted during the intermission or at a suitable break.
The programme does not represent the views of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department.
The presenter reserves the right to change the programme.
Born in Nizhni Novgorod in Russia, Igor Levit completed his piano studies at Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien Hannover in Germany with the highest score in the history of the institute. In 2019, he was appointed professor for piano at his alma mater. He was named “Artist of the Year” and received the Instrumental Award for his album Beethoven: The Complete Piano Sonatas, his first complete recording of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, by Gramophone in 2020. Furthermore, his album On DSCH was awarded the “Recording of the Year” and Instrumental Award of BBC Music Magazine in June 2022.
As a recitalist, Levit regularly performs at the world’s most renowned concert halls and festivals. He is also a regular soloist with the world’s leading orchestras such as The Cleveland Orchestra, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Royal Concertgebouworkest and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. He is one of portrait artists of Vienna’s Musikverein for the 2022-23 season. With Lucerne Festival, he has curated a three-day Piano Festival which will take place in May 2023. He will join the San Francisco Symphony and Esa-Pekka Salonen for a multi-week residency in June 2023.
During the lockdown in 2020, his 53 Twitter-streamed live house concerts garnered a worldwide audience, offering a sense of community and hope in a time of isolation and desperation. In October 2020, Levit was recognised with the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.
Information provided by the artist
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Piano Master with a Bustling Twitter
Date: 21.11.2022 (Mon)
Venue: Committee Room South, 7/F, High Block, Hong Kong City Hall
Speaker: Savio Lau (Music Critic)
Conducted in Cantonese
Admission free on a first come, first served basis.