Do not bother to ask what label might best describe Igor Levit. He has chosen his own and emblazons it at the head of his website: “Citizen. European. Pianist.” in that order. In case any doubt lingers, his Twitter account (97.7K followers, not bad for a classical musician) adds “Human Being” in pride of place. His location reads simply “The World”.
“Yes, I am rooted here in Europe,” he explains. “But since 2015 and the refugee crisis, which was not a surprise for anybody who has any kind of awareness, I have grown wider in my sources of communication. I am speaking to people all over the world, way beyond Germany, way beyond Europe. That event changed me entirely.”
Still only 33, Levit has risen fast, especially given that he was a late starter. There have been young pianists who have shot to fame before, but none worth mentioning who are winning attention as much for their political views as their music.
It was as recently as 2011 that he first came to notice when he joined the BBC New Generations Scheme, a proven hotbed of international musical talent. A couple of years later he made a scorching-hot recording of Beethoven’s late piano sonatas, followed the next year by a huge work called The People United Will Never be Defeated! by the little-known American, Frederic Rzewski. Protest and politics are Rzewski’s lifeblood, and Levit’s championing of his music was a pointer of what was to come.
These days it feels as if Levit is making headlines daily. Through his Twitter account he is quick off the mark commenting on the current affairs that stir his liberal passions — social equality, climate change, President Trump (no surprise there), immigration.
Born in Russia, but raised in Germany from the age of eight, he is also a passionate European. Who else but Levit would have chosen to play an arrangement of the European anthem, live on TV and wearing an EU flag on his lapel, as his encore at the BBC Proms after the Brexit referendum?
It does not seem unreasonable to ask which matters most to him. Is a career as a pianist still his mission in life, or could he be tempted to forge a route into politics?
Levit jumps in to say he is already a member of a political party, but is keen to deflect the idea that he might take the next step and stand for election.
“You don’t have to stand for the Bundestag to make a change,” he says. “Look at Luisa Neubauer [the 24-year-old German who has led schoolchildren in climate change protests]. I can’t compare to the impact she and Greta Thunberg have made globally, and how they have raised awareness of climate change. Neubauer has found the language for a generation and inspired political involvement without being a member of parliament.”
That leaves open the option of championing a cause as they do. If so, what would it be? “Equality,” he says decisively. “That means an understanding of what our responsibility is now as Europeans, both historically and politically. It is a conversation about colonisation, the form of capitalism, and about systemic racism. Racism came from somewhere. It has a certain truth of its own, it still exists, and music is not free from that.”
That music can be a powerful channel of communication is clear from Levit’s own recent experience. Confined to his home during the lockdown in Germany, he felt frustrated about his inability to play concerts and, on a whim, decided to stream a recital online from his home that evening. He had no equipment, so ran out to the electronics store, spent €24, and at 7pm was giving his first “Hauskonzert”.
The take-up far exceeded expectations and 50 more followed. One of them was presented by invitation from Schloss Bellevue in Berlin, residence of the German president. By the time Levit decided he needed a rest, he was awash with feedback from viewers and felt that something more lasting needed to come out of the experience.
The result was his new album, Encounters. Through the nightly Hauskonzert series, Levit says he simply played any music he fancied “from A to Z”, but there was one piece that brought an audience response beyond any other. That was the spare and hypnotic Palais de Mari by American one-off Morton Feldman.
“The messages I received about that were by far the most touching,” he says. “People would say they were hearing it for the first time and, though the piece has no agenda, no melody, no apparent form, it gave them time to think. I had no plan to do a CD in the summer, so the Feldman was where it started. I have tried to bring together music that invites a sense of inner exploration.”
From there, Bach and Brahms chose themselves for inclusion. Both were composers he had played in his home concerts and all the works he selected speak strongly about “togetherness, belief, love”, he says.
“What listeners will experience from this is none of my business. I can only tell you what this music does for me, and what it did at the time I was playing it. Music is free, it doesn’t belong to anybody, it just does for you whatever it does. A certain piece by Bach may touch you and not somebody else.”
That may help to explain how he can be equally an enthusiast for Bach and Beethoven, flamenco and American blues and jazz greats such as Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Miles Davis. “I play no Chopin,” he admits. “I feel dumb when I play it, and Chopin’s music deserves better than me. As far as piano music is concerned, Chopin is the composer where I most feel that. I am much more rock ’n’ roll than I am rock. More Earl Hines than Art Tatum. There isn’t much I wouldn’t listen to, because I am crazy about music that is being made while I am alive — electronic, pop, everything.”
The Hauskonzert series has finished for now, as Levit plunges into the restarting of live concerts with Beethoven cycles in Salzburg and Berlin. He says he has no idea what the future will bring, but is clear that music and politics are inextricably entwined. Equality means thinking afresh about which artists are chosen to perform. Climate change means touring cannot go on as it is.
“It is essential we raise awareness that our world is in great danger, because the economic resources of millions of people are being sucked dry,” he says. “Musicians need be part of that, not living in a bubble. If we cry out now that we should be treated as an integral part of the world, then we must behave like it. How do we widen our audiences? Who will the performers be? Where do we play? It is time to find answers.”
‘Encounters’ is released by Sony Classical on September 12
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