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?
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.
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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.
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.
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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.