“Empty concert halls,” the pianist Igor Levit tweeted on March 12, 2020, as the coronavirus was beginning its rampage through Europe. “The idea of listening to and experiencing music together is gone — for now.” But he wanted, somehow, to find a way to keep sharing music with listeners.
In what was still a new and unfamiliar concept, he decided, almost on a whim, to livestream himself playing from his apartment in Berlin. “It’s an experiment,” he continued. “Social Media House Concert until we meet again.”
That evening, Levit performed Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata, the first of 52 “hauskonzerts” he would go on to play, exploring the limits of his repertoire while more than a million viewers watched, listened, and left real-time comments. The sound was terrible, but it didn’t matter — you were getting a glimpse into a musician’s inner sanctum. On one level it felt casual — he often played in a T-shirt or hoodie — but on another it felt ritualistically intense. While many other musicians were trying simply to stay visible, Levit spent the early part of the lockdown figuring out how to forge connections in isolation, make music matter to our broken condition, and provide much-needed succor in the process.
When he resumed live performance, later that year and in 2021, he realized that some of his “hauskonzert” audience had taken the “until we meet again” part seriously and were showing up to his concerts.
“I can’t tell you how many times, regardless of where I played, there were people who came to me and said, ‘I was there for these three months, house concerts every single night,’” he recently said by phone. “And then they would tell me what it meant to them.”
What he found most fulfilling at concerts was how “that freedom of expression, which I felt so much when I streamed from home, I kind of kept while walking on stage,” he said. “This feeling of, ‘Hi guys — let’s just do something together’ — that feeling really remained.”
When I spoke to Levit, he had just arrived in New York to begin a month of American concerts, including three performances of Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra next week. They mark his Symphony Hall debut and his first visit to Boston since 2017, when he gave a captivating recital of Beethoven, Shostakovich, and Frederic Rzewski before a tiny audience in Longy School’s Pickman Hall. (The fact that he has yet to play another recital here in a larger hall is a glaring omission, one that ought to be rectified as soon as feasible.)
Omicron, he said, has created a difficult and unsettled state of affairs for everyone in the performing arts — not only (or even principally) for himself, but especially “the people working backstage, promoters, management — the people who make it possible that we be artists,” he said. “We are all working 600 percent of normal capacity. The phone calls we all have to do, day and night, the uncertainty we have to face. Everyone is so, so exhausted.”
For all the unease, though, most concerts seem to be going on as planned, a marker — if not the most important one — of how far the arts and the world more broadly have come. In that way, “there’s the happiness and the relief that we can work again — making music again, being together with people,” he said.
Levit’s newest recording, one of the most ambitious of 2021, is “On DSCH” (Sony), which brings together two Shostakovich-related works: The composer’s own 24 Preludes and Fugues, and “Passacaglia on DSCH,” a three-part set of variations on Shostakovich’s “musical initials” (the notes D, E-flat, C, and B) by the British composer Ronald Stevenson. The Preludes and Fugues are well-established in the piano repertory; by contrast, the Stevenson is obscure, even to many musicians and well-informed listeners. Levit is the most prominent among its champions.
It’s also immense, encompassing nearly every traditional musical form and a bunch of nontraditional ones, too. The nonmusical scope of the Passacaglia is equally broad: The score contains references to “emergent Africa,” Lenin’s slogan of “Peace, Land, and Bread,” and the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Few musical works capture so well Mahler’s dictum about the symphony — that it should encompass the entire world. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s also extremely taxing to play.
Levit came to the piece through his teacher, Matti Raekallio, and their shared enthusiasm for the Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni. “Stevenson was mentioned as a great Busonian,” he said. “So I bought the sheet music of the [Passacaglia], looked at it, and sort of fainted.”
But it stuck with him, and about a decade later he made up his mind to learn it, a process that took about two years. He eventually decided that it needed to be recorded with the Shostakovich in the same way that, several years ago, he paired Rzewski’s “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” with Bach’s Goldberg and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations.
“It’s the single most international piece of piano music I know,” he said of the Stevenson. “I don’t know a single piano work of that range and magnitude. It’s like a human being’s lifetime, but combined into one piece. I’m always comparing it to watching [Stanley Kubrick’s film] ‘Barry Lyndon,’ this larger-than-life experience which is second to none, for the very first time.”
For all the technical demands the Stevenson makes on the pianist, Levit spoke of playing it almost as a nurturing process. He compared it with Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata, which “just takes so much from you.” By contrast, the Passcaglia, “although it’s 85 minutes long, and has [this] magnitude of difficulties, it’s been a piece which gives me more than it takes. Regardless of how often I play it, I’ve never been exhausted in a bad way. It just fills me with ideas and pictures and experiences.”
He spoke in a similar way about the Brahms concerto, also a piece of legendary difficulty that even great pianists find problematic. But to Levit it is “one of the most positive, life-celebrating pieces I know. It’s pure joy.
“Yes, it’s terribly risky and terribly difficult to play,” he continued. But “for me this concerto has never been exhausting. For me, it’s just like someone is pumping the good aspects of life into your veins.”
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Jan. 20-22. Tickets $25 and up. 888-266-1200; www.bso.org