Igor Levit is a pianist who likes tackling works on a big scale. His first recording to receive international attention was a 3-disc set of of variations: the Bach Goldbergs, the Beethoven Diabelli Variations, and Variations on “The People United Will Never Be Defeated” by the recently deceased American composer Frederic Rzewski. It is not often a young piano superstar deviates from the standard repertoire in such a spectacularly quirky way. (Volodos also did it with great success in a program of Federico Mompou). Levit has done it again here; the result is revelatory.

Igor Levit

Dmitri Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, using Bach as a precedent, were written in the heat of inspiration during the early 1950s for Soviet pianist Tatiana Nikolaeva. The composer was inspired by her Bach playing. While Shostakovich’s fugues are not as a varied in approach as Bach’s, his counterpoint is skilfully presented, and together with the preludes (one in each of the major and minor keys of the chromatic scale) they cover a wide emotional terrain.

Nikolaeva recorded this music three times: twice for the Russian label Melodiya and finally for Hyperion. Her second is reputedly her best. Later recordings include a pristine, neoclassical take by jazz pianist Keith Jarrett (ECM), a strong set from Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca), and a magnificent performance by Alexander Melnikov (Harmonia Mundi). Levit falls between Jarrett and Melnikov: His playing is wonderfully polished, with a wider range of expression than Jarrett, but lacking the typical Shostakovich melancholy that Ashkenazy and Melnikov bring to it. 

Levit is pointedly, delightfully playful in some of the lighter pieces. In the more intense second half, he avoids Melnikov’s drama (notably in Prelude No 14, which Melnikov makes terrifying) but finds different qualities: reverence, in Prelude No 13, a sense of spirituality in Prelude No. 24 in d minor, and a misty dreamscape in Fugue No 22. Rather than angst, Levit goes for nostalgia in these later pieces, even in the sweet-natured Prelude No 17 in A Flat. His is a beautifully shaped, compelling performance.

Claimed to be the longest single-movement work written for the piano, Scottish composer Ronald Stevenson’s Passacaglia on DSCH was composed between 1960 and 1962. It uses a ground bass built on four notes taken from Shostakovich’s name in German spelling: DSCH, or D, E Flat, C, B. Over the repeated motif, variations in a wide variety of styles unfold, from straightforward harmonic decoration to quasi-primitive rhythms (in the section marked “To Emergent Africa”), to sonic effects like strumming the strings inside the piano lid. The last section cumulates with elaborate Bachian counterpoint in a complex triple fugue. At the 1962 Aldeburgh Festival, Stevenson presented a photocopy of his score to Shostakovich, who was quite taken aback.

Levit has no problems with the technical challenges of this monumental work, playing with authority, colour, and poetry. In both works he always maintains a clear sense of the whole. His instrument is warmly recorded, making this exciting release a mandatory recommendation.

Listen on Apple Music

Composers: Shostakovich, Stevenson
Works: 24 Preludes and Fugues, Passacaglia on DSCH
Performer: Igor Levit
Label: SONY 19439809212 (3CD)

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