Igor Levit’s wonderful new recording, Life, is dedicated to the memory of his close friend Hannes Malte Mahler, who died in a bicycle accident not long before work on the album started. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that playing music is, for the Russian-born pianist, a way of processing his grief.
“You know, I can express my grief, but by expressing it I don’t lose my grief,” Levit says carefully, in a telephone conversation from Munich. “Grief doesn’t get better just because I’m expressing it. But what really helped was the acknowledgment of the fact that I’m not alone. So people help, friends help—and music, in a way, helps me simply to express myself, for myself and for others.
“My grief about this loss, and my anxiety about many other things… These become more bearable by knowing that I’m not alone with them,” he adds.
A similar seriousness of intent lies behind the program that Levit will present when he returns to the Vancouver Recital Society this weekend. Ranging from its slyly understated opener—Johannes Brahms’s arrangement for piano left hand of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor—to its fully virtuosic closer, Ferruccio Busoni’s take on Franz Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale “Ad nos ad salutarem undam”, it will plumb depths both sacred and profane. One likely highlight will be Robert Schumann’s rarely performed Ghost Variations, a deceptively simple meditation that dissolves in a fearful shivering, perhaps a premonition of the composer’s madness and subsequent death.
But for all this solemnity, the works Levit has chosen also speak to the simple human connections that kept him going in those dark days after his friend’s death. All but the Schumann are pieces in which a composer ruminates on another composer; also on the bill are Busoni’s Fantasia After J. S. Bach and Liszt’s piano transcription of Richard Wagner’s “Solemn March to the Holy Grail”, from Parsifal. And in ruminating on them himself, Levit says he’s not seeking access to something eternal, but a sense of human continuity.
“There is the idea of you, here, looking back and creating something new—that is, let’s say, for someone like Busoni—and me, in the 21st century, looking back to Busoni and creating my own sense of it,” he explains. “This is kind of the chain of procedure here.”
And, really, he couldn’t possibly do anything else. “I am a human being of my time; I am a pianist of my time. And my time is 2018,” the 31-year-old musician says. “I am not a pianist of 1965, and whoever was a pianist in 1965, just by nature, did something different than I do. I’m surrounded by different sounds; I’m surrounded by different cars, as Miles Davis put it once. I’m surrounded by different housing, different voices, and this goes on into who I am. It goes automatically into how I make music.…By nature, you can’t do anything against that, to be influenced by… Well, by what time you live in.”
Igor Levit plays the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts at 3 p.m. on Sunday (November 4).