levit fantasia sony

Igor Levit (piano)
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Air BWV 1068/2 trans. Alexander Siloti (1730)
Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue BWV 903 (c. 1723-30)
Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Piano Sonata in B minor S 178 (1853)
Schubert-Liszt Der Doppelgänger S 560/12 (1838-9)
Alban Berg (1885-1935)
Klavierstück in B minor (1985)
Piano Sonata Op. 1 (1907-8)
Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924)
Fantasia Contrappuntistica BV 256 (1912)
Nuit de Noël BV 251 (1908)
rec. 2023, Leibniz Saal, Hanover, Germany
Sony 19658811642 [2 CDs: 104]

Igor Levit is the pianist who puts together ambitious and imaginative programmes and brings them off. His latest venture is called Fantasia and may be his most ambitious yet. Its climax is a performance of Busoni’s monumental Fantasia Contrappuntistica, while en route to that we take in Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue and the Liszt Sonata. There are also some smaller pieces.

We begin with Bach’s Air, which is the one from the third Orchestral Suite commonly known as the Air on the G string, played here in Siloti’s piano transcription. This is romantic Bach, but Levit plays it quite straight and does not pull it around and he lightens the texture through his gentle touch. The Chromatic Fantasia then follows, played much faster than I usually hear it, and very freely. However, although all performances need some filling out from the rather skeletal score, Levit does less than some, being sparing with ornaments and the sustaining pedal and eschewing octave doublings. He brings the same approach to the Fugue, bringing out the different lines very cleanly and building to a great climax. I should not be surprised that he is a fine Bach player as his recording of the six keyboard Partitas was Gramophone record of the year in 2014 (review).

Then we have his Liszt Sonata. His approach to this is classical, Beethovenian even, and Levit has recorded all the Beethoven Sonatas, with his version of the late ones being one of his early successes (review). He presents the work very much as a serious composition, and although he offers plenty of virtuosity and excitement, he does not treat it as primarily a vehicle for these qualities. In fact, it is often his quiet playing which most impressed me, with the sinister muttering of the repeated notes theme or the soaring lyricism of the second subject.

Levit follows this with Liszt’s piano transcription of Schubert’s Der Doppelgänger from Schwanengesang. This is a dark and sinister piece, also as it happens in B minor, like the Liszt Sonata, and a suitable pendant to it.

The second disc begins with a short fragment, only fifteen bars, also in B minor, by Berg. This prepares us for the Berg Sonata. Liszt’s chromaticism was very influential, not only on Wagner, but in the next generation on Berg and Busoni, as well as others. The Berg Sonata is in one movement, really a sonata form first movement without any successor movements because Schoenberg advised him that he had said all that needed to be said. It is highly chromatic and expressive in a way that is heading towards expressionism but has not yet got there. Levit gives a fine and eloquent performance of this tightly knit work.

The Fantasia Contrappuntistica was a by-product of Busoni’s editorial labours on an edition of Bach. He was working on Bach’s Art of Fugue when Bernard Ziehn showed him how the three themes of Bach’s last unfinished fugue, Contrapunctus XIV, could combine with the motto theme of the whole work. Busoni decided to incorporate this into a work of his own. The first version of this was his Grosse Fuge of 1910. He then added a version of the third of his piano Elegies at the beginning and this became the edizione definitiva, entitled Fantasia Contrappuntistica, also dated 1910. This is divided into twelve sections, with an Intermezzo, three Variations and a Cadenza coming after the Bach fragment and before the culminating combination of the four themes. The final Stretta draws on Bach’s Contrapunctus XI and ends with massive chords. Busoni made two subsequent versions of the work. The edizione minore of 1912 has a different opening and a simplified structure but a longer working out of the fourfold combination. In 1921 he arranged the work for two pianos, with further changes and improvements. He stated an intention to include these improvements in a revision of the 1910 edizione definitiva but did not live to do so. So that is what Levit plays here, though I have to note that he does not include the two pages of working out of the culminating combination which for some reason Busoni consigned to an Appendix; of recordings I know, only John Ogdon reinstates these.

Even in the sections taken straight from Bach, Busoni makes changes, adding chromatic notes and deep pedals. So the whole work is suffused with that quintessential Busonian quality of mystery and depth. Although, as in the Liszt Sonata, there are passages of great virtuosity, there is also a good deal of very quiet, mysterious and sometimes sinister writing. Levit catches this to perfection; most performances tend to be too unrelentingly loud and forceful. And he can cope with the fantastically intricate and tangled polyphony and make music of it. Indeed, this is the best performance of the work I have heard.

We end with a rarity, even among Busoni’s works, his 1908 Esquisse, Nuit de Noël. This was, unusually for Busoni, published in France and with French expression marks. I think this is an exercise by Busoni in the impressionist manner of Debussy and Ravel, though the Busoni authority Antony Beaumont disagrees. At any rate you can hear gently falling snowflakes and later bells, drums and a Christmas carol. This is a quiet end to the recital.

With a recital like this, the issue is as much whether you are attracted by the programme as a whole as much as it is of the quality of the individual performances. All the performances here stand up well and that of the big Busoni work is outstanding. The recording is excellent. Although it is only January, this is going to be one of my records of the year.

Stephen Barber

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