Musical America honors Igor Levit as Recording Artist of the Year

Recording Artist of the Year:
Igor Levit

The decision to honor pianist Igor Levit as Recording Artist of the Year recognizes his early determination not to allow the pandemic to curtail his music-making. When COVID-19 hit, Levit was one of the first musicians to embrace the livestream with his marathon performance of Satie’s Vexations, rightfully hailed as an unflagging feat of artistic and physical endurance.

This temporary restructure of the awards replaces the long-held categories of Conductor, Instrumentalist, Composer, Vocalist and Musician of the Year, with other occasional awards depending on the year, such as Festival, Ensemble, Educator, and Collaborative Pianist. (Photo: © Felix Broede, Sony Classical)

The 2021 honorees will be recognized in a first-ever all-virtual edition of the Awards ceremony, to be presented via Facebook Live on December 6 at 4:00 pm ET.

By Stuart Isacoff

On the evidence of his recordings for Sony, Levit’s business is to make music that is honest, direct, and visceral, whether the works at hand are knotty and complex or tranquil and expansive. His playing, though often tender and emotional, is never syrupy.

Igor Levit is a pianist of impeccable artistry who confounds expectations. Yet that upending is not willful. Unlike musicians whose interpretations are either painstakingly pedantic or insistently perverse, carefully leading the listener by the hand, Levit has no particular agenda as far as his audience is concerned. “All I do,” he tells me, “and I really mean it, is to press the keys down and a tone comes up. I can have a certain idea about the tone, but I have no idea what the tone will do to you. In a most beautiful way, it is none of my business.”

On the evidence of his recordings for Sony—his latest two-CD set, Encounter, features Busoni’s arrangements of chorale preludes by Bach; Brahms’s Vier ernste Gesänge arranged by Reger; Reger’s Nachtlied, arranged by Julian Becker; and Morton Feldman’s final work for solo piano, the spacious Palais de Mari—his business is to make music that is honest, direct, and visceral, whether the works at hand are knotty and complex or tranquil and expansive. His playing, though often tender and emotional, is never syrupy. “I’m not a sentimental person,” he explains.

The 33-year-old Levit, born in Nizhny Novgorod and now living in Berlin, has long been attracted to musicians who exhibit “razor sharpness” (his description of jazz great Thelonious Monk’s sound), or intensity (he was floored upon first hearing blues guitarist Robert Johnson, whose playing can “grab you around the throat”—and he’d like his piano to sound “like Muddy Waters”). His own piano tone seems to glow, illuminating a very individual approach to the repertoire, always executed with an air of poised self-assurance. One of his heroes, composer Ferruccio Busoni, maintained that, “The role of the creative artist is to make new laws, not to follow those already made.” Yet Levit, steeped in the traditional masterworks, chose for his first Sony outing in 2013 the last five Beethoven sonatas.

That in itself was a bold move. Late Beethoven is often considered a hurdle for young musicians, but Levit’s account of, say, the challenging slow movement of the composer’s final sonata, Op. 111—in the words of 1915 Nobel Prize winner Romain Rolland, “an immobile lake” whose time-suspending stretch brought to his mind the “almost impassive smile of Buddha”—is as deftly handled as the mesmerizing Feldman piece on his recent set, or his marathon live-streaming of Erik Satie’s Vexations, whose 840 repetitions are usually performed by teams of players rather than by a single soloist. For this artist, endurance is never an issue. Even under trying circumstances, his creative juices simply don’t flag.

He followed that initial release with Bach’s Six Partitas (2014); a three-disc set of variations in 2015 including Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, and Frederick Rzewski’s colossal The People United Will Never Be Defeated; an entire Beethoven sonata cycle (recorded between 2017 and 2019); and Life, in 2018, with music by Busoni, Bach, Schumann, Rzewski, Liszt, and Bill Evans.

In all these efforts, the music often seems to emerge effortlessly, almost as if the performer had removed himself from the picture. It is a goal to which many aspirants have paid lip service; few have actually accomplished what comes so naturally to Igor Levit. •

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