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The Sprawling Piano Odyssey of Igor Levit’s “Life”

The Russian-German pianist Igor Levit, perhaps the most formidable virtuoso of the younger generation (fans of Daniil Trifonov will beg to differ), designed his two-CD album “Life” as a tribute to a close friend, the performance artist Hannes Malte Mahler. Yet there are no conventional elegiac pieces on the disk. Instead, Levit alternates between titanic contrapuntal struggles and otherworldly meditations. The program is heavy on transcriptions, variations, and transformations: composers extending one another’s thoughts. At its heart is the great Italian composer-virtuoso Ferruccio Busoni, who, like Liszt before him, had a way of absorbing others’ music so that it became his own. The biggest offering is Busoni’s piano transcription of Liszt’s Fantasia and Fugue for organ, itself based on Giacomo Meyerbeer’s chorale “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam,” from “Le Prophète.” This composite work is staggeringly difficult and rarely played; Levit encompasses its dizzying range of moods, from destructive rage to dreamlike bliss. No less impressive are Levit’s renderings of two Liszt transcriptions of Wagner: the Act I Transformation music from “Parsifal” and Isolde’s Liebestod from “Tristan und Isolde.” In the “Parsifal” music, Levit combines chordal masses of enormous, room-shaking heft with glistening, translucent sounds that seem to emanate directly from the piano strings, without mechanical action. The effect is heightened by Sony’s unusually close, vivid recording, which gives the listener the sense of sitting at the keyboard.

Levit’s command of the piano inspires a degree of awe, but what’s most compelling is the emotional narrative that emerges from his sprawling program. (He will reproduce much of it in recitals at Zankel Hall, in New York, on October 19th, and at San Francisco Performances, on November 1st.) By assembling a diverse and unconventional group of pieces and applying the force of his technique, the pianist seems to become a composer in his own right. His idiosyncratic, impassioned world view is especially evident in the addition of two more contemporary works: “A Mensch,” by the composer-activist Frederic Rzewski, and “Peace Piece,” by the jazz master Bill Evans. They come from a world very different from that of Liszt, Wagner, and Busoni, yet they end up breathing the same rarefied, transcendental air. At the end, you have the sense of having undertaken an immense journey, across variegated landscapes, in the footsteps of a purposeful wanderer.

ViaNewYorker