Russian classical pianist Igor Levit was in his mid-20s when he got his recording career started with two double albums, one of Beethoven sonatas the other of Bach partitas. For his third album, he’s taken an even bigger bite with a triple album that covers Bach, Beethoven, and American composer Frederic Rzewski. It’s a marathon of solo piano works with 104 movements spanning three hours and 13 minutes. As one may have guessed, Bach, Beethoven, Rzewski is ordered chronologically with one of Baroque music’s most abused equinian corpses leading the charge on disc one. I speak, of course, of the Goldberg Variations, BWV.
When it comes to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a work where a theme is followed by 30 different variations in the same key, it’s difficult to make a new recording that stands out from a Glenn Gould-centric pack. Other musicians have certainly tried, including jazz pianist Dan Tepfer who compounded the work by recording an extra improvisation based on each variation and classical pianist Jeremy Denk hates the Goldberg Variations so much. Tepfer’s move audaciously sparked new music while Denk’s gesture provides a few humorous talking points. Igor Levit’s performance of the Goldberg Variations is about preserving Bach with all the reverence an award-winning pianist can deliver. Levit’s ability to play all of the tricky, overlapping patterns with clockwork precision make the 77-plus minutes more of an admirable listen than an inspirational one. You can’t fault Levit for that, though. After all, a prominent teacher like Denk called these very variations “annoyingly unimpeachable” and “boring”.
Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations haven’t been beaten into to ground quite so thoroughly as the Bach work, perhaps due to Beethoven’s ability to not always take himself so seriously. Igor Levit’s rendition of the Diabelli Variations, 30-odd variations on a waltz by Anton Diabelli, tempers the piece’s inherent nose-tweakings with dramatic rubato and dynamics. It’s not the most engaging disc of the set but it does manage to escape the sense of rigidity brought about by the Goldberg disc. Baby step by baby step, Igor Levit’s flairs gradually rise to the top of the music in time for the third disc, which is when he needs them the most.
While the variations composed by Bach and Beethoven were just notated improvisations, Frederic Rzewski’s optimistically titled “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” puts the performer firmly in the driver’s seat, letting the vessel shape the music along the way. Using a Chilean song as its starting point, the work is divided into 36 very brief variations where many of the titles give the performer abstract suggestions like “Dreamlike, frozen, a little slower” or more specific instructions like “Same tempo as preceding, with fluctuations, much pedal, expansive, with a victorious feeling”. The performer also needs to slam the piano lid. As the music wanders further away from the original tune, the sounds grow increasingly modern. All twelve tones of the scale are explored in a stupefying amount of tempos and moods. You could say that Rzewski’s set of variations is the polar opposite of Bach’s, yet here they are on the same album.
Bach, Beethoven, Rzewski is, by design, a mixed bag. Critiquing it on those terms alone is the wrong approach. As far as I can tell, this triple album can be broken down thus: one disc is an act of preservation, another disc is a playful imitation of a certain composer’s flamboyance, and the last disc is a mad grab for improvisational glory. Even if the listener isn’t fully engaged in all three discs, it can be agreed upon that Levit pulls off all three works convincingly. If more Rzewskiesque works lie in Igor Levit’s future, history will remember him as a highly expressive player. If there are more Bach works in his future, then, well, that means there will be more Bach recordings.