Pianist Igor Levit (from his SFP event page)
Last night in Herbst Theatre, San Francisco Performances (SFP) presented the second program in its six-concert Piano Series, a solo recital by Igor Levit making his second SFP appearance. The program was organized around selections from Levit’s latest album, Life. The first half of the program began with the Chaconne movement from Johann Sebastian Bach’s solo violin partita in D minor in the piano transcription composed by Johannes Brahms to be played by the left hand alone. This was contrary to the erroneous claim in last night’s program book that Levit would be playing the arrangement by Ferruccio Busoni; but Busoni still got his innings with a performance of his “Fantasia nach Johann Sebastian Bach” (fantasia after Bach). This was followed, deliberately without a break for applause, by Robert Schumann’s WoO 24 “Gesitervariationen” (ghost variations). These accounted for the first three tracks on the Life album, although the album placed the Bach chaconne between the Busoni and Schumann selections.
The second half of the program presented the longest selection on the album, Busoni’s piano transcription of one of Liszt’s major organ compositions, the “Fantasy and Fugue on the chorale ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam.’” This was preceded by Liszt’s arrangement of the “Solemn March to the Holy Grail” from Richard Wagner’s opera Parsifal. Again, Levit did not allow a break for applause between these two selections.
It was a pity that the program book confused the Brahms and Busoni arrangements of Bach, but the mistake is understandable. Busoni’s version is a textbook example of that composer’s capacity for keyboard virtuoso playing at its most excessive; and, as a result, it shows up frequently on recital programs. One can hardly imagine that this was music written for a solo violin, and it would not be out of line to suggest than any resemblance to Bach in either flesh or spirit is purely coincidental. Brahms’ version, on the other hand, is an exercise in pedagogy that could not have been a better successor to Bach’s own pedagogical practices. Brahms was as concerned with providing music that would hone skills of technical dexterity as Bach was, but he also went to great lengths to provide a clear account of every gesture of inventiveness behind this epic number of repetitions of the chaconne bass line.
One might say that Brahms was seeking an exercise in piano expressiveness that reflected the expressiveness that Bach sought to evoke from the violin. Having played the transcription myself, I have nothing but the greatest respect for how Brahms’ succeeded in his goal. Busoni’s version may be all about virtuosity on a modern piano instrument, but the Brahms arrangement is all about Bach from beginning to end. That is how Levit chose to perform it (well qualified to do so by virtue of his recordings of both the solo keyboard partitas, BWV 825–830, and the BWV 988 “Goldberg” variations). The result could not have made a deeper solidly positive impression.
It was thus logical to follow with a Busoni selection that respected Bach as much as Brahms did. Busoni’s fantasia is a study in inventive elaboration based on three of Bach’s chorale themes, “Christ du bist der helle Tag” (BWV 766), “In dulci jubilo” (BWV 608), and “Lob sei dem allmächtigen Gott” (BWV 602). Invention involves not only variations but also techniques of thematic deconstruction and reconstruction. If Busoni’s transcription of the BWV 1004 shows him at his most flamboyant, this fantasia shows him at his most cerebral, honoring the many gestures that “make Bach sound like Bach” while casting them solidly in the rhetoric of the early twentieth century.
It may have been those cerebral qualities that motivated Levit to move from Busoni to Schumann with only the slightest pause. WoO was Schumann’s last composition for solo piano, composed shortly before the time of his admission to an insane asylum and, most likely, left incomplete. Levit’s account provided the same discipline as his approach to Brahms with a clear focus on the nature of the theme and its underlying presence in the five variations that Schumann completed. Nevertheless, Levit knew how to establish that the last of those variations did not necessarily bring closure to the composition, leaving the attentive listener to treat the intermission as a somewhat ambiguous break in the flow of the overall concert.
That break, however, was a necessary one before the fireworks of Busoni’s transcription of Liszt’s organ music. Having heard Liszt’s music played by Paul Jacobs on the Ruffatti organ in Davies Symphony Hall, I know how the composer approached the instrument the same way he approached his piano, with a firm conviction that there is no such thing as excess. The object of Busoni’s transcription is an unabashedly unruly beast, based on an Anabaptist chorale sung in Giacomo Meyerbeer’s opera Le Prophète. Levit knew how to jump through all of the requisite hoops established by both Liszt and Busoni; and his straight-faced approach behind the keyboard did its level best to conceal just how ridiculous the whole affair was.
Nevertheless, it would be fair to say that Meyerbeer’s music readily lent itself to the double-barreled flamboyance of both Liszt and Busoni. The Parsifal excerpt that preceded it was, on the other hand, an entirely different matter. There is a reason why Richard Wagner’s opera is known in the concert hall by only two excerpts from the score, the opening prelude and the music of the “Good Friday spell.” The opera itself is almost more ritual than music, and the ceremony of the Grail is ritual at its most extreme. The musical language is at its most impoverished because Wagner expected those attending the performance to be drawn into the ceremony, rather than the music; and, when realized by a skilled stage director, that ceremony can become seared permanently in the memory of any dedicated opera-goer.
In deciding to reflect on the Grail music, Liszt deliberately put himself in a position of working with highly limited thematic material. As a result, the treatment itself is just as much limited in all matters except for that of overall duration. Unfortunately, that duration is due to repetition, rather than development. Levit did his best to mine as much expressiveness as he could from the score; but, at the end of the day, this was an arrangement that did not do any favors to Wagner nor, for that matter, to Liszt himself. Reflecting back on his approach to Bach, this Wagner arrangement was music that justified Brahms coining the derogatory adjective “Lisztich.”
The encore selection, on the other hand, provided much relief from all of the Lisztian excess. Levit confined himself to the final movement, “Der Dichter spricht” (the poet speaks), from Schumann’s Opus 15 Kinderszenen (scenes from childhood) collection. This was an understated account that did not try to magnify the music into an overly-precious moment. It Levit’s final utterance, and the music resonated with the same rhetorical qualities Schumann evoked for his imagined poet.