Pianist Igor Levit: Performance is a 'beautiful kind of artistic anarchism'

Igor Levit is young, in demand and gave three performances at this year's Beethovenfest in Bonn. And he spoke with DW after a recital at the city's Church of the Holy Cross.

DW: Your program included works by Johann Sebastian Bach and by Ferruccio Busoni, who considered himself Bach's biggest fan. Busoni transcribed a number of Bach's works for piano, but some of his own compositions such as his "Fantasy After Johann Sebastian Bach" sound a lot different. Can you explain why?

Culture | 02.10.2017

Igor Levit: Busoni was all about freedom. His writings focused on the idea, both in artistic and in general terms. He basically declared that people, or humanity itself, really cannot cope with freedom. And if you think about what is going on in the world today, you could think he may have been right.

But he said — and I couldn't agree more — that music is and was born to be free and to aim for freedom as its goal. Yet everyone tries to pigeonhole it, give it titles and assign rules and forms to it. But music, he says, is free. It's immaterial. We cannot touch or possess it. It exists between us, basically in the air. And no one should ever tell you how to interpret a piece of music. Whether you experience music or make it, everyone has their own way, with no restrictions.

So I think that what Busoni does — with the greatest respect and admiration for the great Johann Sebastian Bach — is to basically take Bach's material and liberate it. And that is very touching.

Read more: Igor Levit, researcher at the piano

The German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said something to the effect of freedom only existing within bounds. And in fact, even Busoni's music has structures.

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Pianist Igor Levit and friends

Yes, but Goethe was putting a certain utopia into words. And in a touching and incredible way, Busoni's 1910 piece "Fantasia contrappuntistica" is a kind of utopia expressed in music.

Any kind of music has a structure, with the possible exception of John Cage's 4:33 [in this work, the pianist sits silent at the keyboard for 4 minutes and 33 seconds – Editor's note]. That's why I think it is one of the most revolutionary steps in 20th century artistic life. In a way, it's the end of all things, because he liberates music from the perception that you have to interpret it and basically gives it a real democracy. That's because everyone is the interpreter of what happens. So there's maybe no form there.

Form is incredibly important. But Busoni writes that imagination is limitless. And that when he imagines a piece, there are no limits to it. Then he takes a pencil in his hand and starts writing things down. And those dots and signs on paper are automatically far more limited than his imagination. So how can interpreter possibly think that what he gets with this piece of paper is the final word? It's all about freedom, and I feel very close to that.

Read more on the Beethovenfest

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What do you do to free up your mind for a performance? Or is that freedom something you take with you all the time?

No, I take that with me 24/7. I believe in a beautiful kind of artistic anarchism.

You also played selections from Bach's "Art of the Fugue." Is that also a kind of utopia? After all, Bach didn't write it for a particular occasion or assign it to a certain instrument.

Any music you play is a utopia.

What was going through your mind when you were playing Bach? Or do you empty your mind before you play music?

Most of the time when I perform, I'm thinking about people. So that was certainly part of my thought processes at that particular moment. But to be perfectly honest, I never remember what I was thinking about, nor do I want to. It's over and done with. I'm a man of today, even more of tomorrow. I was never about yesterday. That's the DNA of my character. It's not about me being proud of this. It's just a fact.

Born in the city of Nizhny Novgorod, in western Russia, Igor Levit began taking piano lessons at age 3 and gave his first public performance as a 4-year-old. Four years later, his family moved to the northern German city of Hanover.

As a student, he completed one year at the Mozarteum University of Salzburg before enrolling in the Hanover University of Music, Drama and Media, where he completed his studies in 2010 with the highest number of points in the academy's history. He has played concerts in Europe, the US and Israel since 2000, and today at age 30, he's one of the world's most sought-after pianists.

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Maria Magdalena Beethoven

A boy's mother is his first love, but little is known about Beethoven's. Her union with Beethoven's father, court singer Johann, was her second marriage. She bore him seven children, but only three survived infancy. Her life wasn't easy: Her alcoholic husband was physically abusive, and she died of tuberculosis in 1787 shortly after Ludwig had returned to Bonn after a studying in Vienna.

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Maria Anna Wilhelmine von und zu Westerholt-Gysenberg

Franz Gerhard Wegeler, a friend from Beethoven's youth, referred to a certain "beautiful and gracious mannered Fräulein v.W.," to whom Beethoven was "most lovingly attracted." And although Wegeler described it as a "Werther love" - in reference to Goethe's tragic novel "The Sorrows of Young Werther" - it seems that Miss v.W. didn't leave any particularly enduring mark on the composer's life.

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Countess Josephine Brunsvik

In 14 love letters between 1804 and 1809, the composer called his recently widowed piano student "angel," "my everything" and his "only love." But their letters have a tone of desperation; had they married, she would have lost custody of her four young children. She married someone else in 1810, while Josephine's sister Therese claimed that Beethoven and the countess were made for each other.

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Countess Giulietta Guicciardi

In 1801 or 1802, the Brunsvik sisters introduced Beethoven to their cousin, also a countess. It was love at first sight, but it was clear to both that due to their differing social status, marriage was out of the question - and Giulietta was already engaged. It seems Beethoven was drawn to impossible romances. But the composer did dedicate his "Moonlight Sonata" to Giulietta.

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Therese von Malfatti

After Josephine Brunsvick remarried in 1810, Beethoven seriously entertained thoughts of proposing marriage to Therese von Malfatti, even writing back home in Bonn for a copy of his baptisim certificate. Both Therese and her family were against the union due to class differences, however. Beethoven seems to have gotten over it rather quickly, and they remained friends.

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Marie Bigot

Beethoven gave Marie the handwritten original of the "Appassionata" sonata, and their emotional connection is clear in his letters to her. In early March 1807, he invited her along on an excursion. But after her husband's jealous reaction, he wrote to the couple saying, "I would never be in a more than friendly relationship with another man's wife."

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Elisabeth Röckel

Beethoven met the 15-year-old in early 1808. In those days, a common nickname for "Elisabeth" was "Elise" - and the wistful little piano piece "Für Elise" is one of the best-known compositions ever. At Beethoven's request, she visited him on his death bed, where he gave her a lock of his hair and his last quill. Music researchers have concluded that Fräulein Röckel is the enigmatic "Elise."

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Antonie Brentano

The sister-in-law of the poet Bettina Brentano wrote in 1811 that "dearest" Beethoven visited her "nearly daily." It was to Antonie that Beethoven gave the handwritten score of the song "An die Geliebte" (To the Beloved). It's also documented that Antonie once traveled from Prague to Karlsruhe on a critical date, which could be relevant for the next woman in Beethoven's life…

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Immortal Beloved

Dated July 6 and 7, 1812, and penned in the Bohemian spa town of Teplitz, the letter to an "Immortal Beloved" is addressed to a woman Beethoven had met with days earlier in Prague and who had then traveled on to "K." (possibly Karlsruhe). So was it Antonie Brentano? Or Josephine Brunsvik, whom he'd also just met and who gave birth to a daughter nine months later? Music researchers still disagree.