“For his political commitment Igor Levit was awarded the 5th International Beethoven Prize in 2019”
This extraordinary statement comes from the program note that Igor Levit provided for his performance of Beethoven’s Thirty-three Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, op 120 at the Adelaide Festival on Sunday night. With a dimension that goes beyond pure artistry, the International Beethoven Prize is awarded to artists who place themselves in the service of human rights, peace, freedom, combating poverty, and inclusion. Levit is indeed such a one.
His performance took place in a studio in Berlin, and was beamed to Adelaide and to Mount Gambier as part of a series of live-streamed events that the Festival mounted, fearing correctly that international artists would have difficulty coming to Australia with current quarantine requirements. Before the performance Rachel Healy and Neil Armfield, the Festival directors, had a chat with him. The last question they asked him was “Would you like to comment on recent political developments in…the USA?” He thought for a moment, waiting for his rage to simmer down, and replied, “I didn’t come here prepared to smash the piano”.
It is relatively common for musicians in other traditions to take up cudgels against right-wing extremism. But it is rare in the field of Western classical music, probably because of the risk of alienating some parts of their audience. And indeed, Levit’s stand echoes Beethoven’s, who famously tore up the first page of his “Bonaparte” symphony when he heard that Napoleon had proclaimed himself President (did I say president? I meant emperor) renaming the symphony “Eroica”, and saying in disgust, “Now he will become a tyrant like all the others”. This passion was evident in every bar of Levit’s performance of the Diabelli Variations.
Beethoven’s music suits both his politics and his temperament. Levit’s playing is very dramatic, very in the moment, and has a huge dynamic range. The variations are a kaleidoscope of the things Beethoven could do, composing from the matrix of the harmonic progression of Diabelli’s trivial waltz, which is well past the point of cliché. From the first variation, a march like that of the second movement of the piano sonata op 101, which dispels even the time signature of the waltz, Levit presented each variation as a whole world, sometimes fleeting and miniature, sometime vast and profound. His playing reminded me of the young Pogarelich, but Levit goes even further in eschewing lyricism and all trace of sentimentality. And when he plays very fast, it is not at all to show off his prodigious technique, but to make the music leap off the page and insist on being attended to.
I have heard many performances of this great work over the years, starting with Barenboim’s of the 1960s. But Levit’s gave me a new insight into it. For the first time I understood how much fun Beethoven had writing it. In this work Beethoven makes reference to various compositions of his time in a skittish way, including to Leporello’s aria “Notte e giorno a faticar” – Night and day I work – from Don Giovanni. Suddenly I saw Beethoven, obsessed by the harmonic essence of Diabelli’s fatuous waltz, working night and day, and laughing at himself for doing so.
This playfulness is in no way at variance with Levit’s (or Beethoven’s) political seriousness. Indeed, it is only in a world rid of the intolerance of right-wing extremism that we can truly play.
2021 Adelaide Festival
streamed live from Berlin
Venue: Her Majesty's Theatre | 58 Grote Street, Adelaide SA
Dates: 7 March 2021
Tickets: $59 – $25