Igor Levit is among the most probing young artists in classical music, the winner last year of the Gilmore Artist Award, given quadrennially to a pianist — along with a $300,000 prize.
And he is as eager to expound on his worldview as on the works of famous composers.
For instance, before a recital in November 2016, on the morning after President Donald Trump was elected, he told his audience at Brussels’ Palais des Beaux-Arts: “Today is a dark day, yesterday was a dark night. Yesterday the greatest economic power in the world has freely elected a bigot, an opportunist, an angry and dangerous man as their new president, as their commander in chief.”
He also criticized Brexit, the French far right and German neo-fascists, then told the crowd: “The time of staying in my comfort zone is over. As long as I have a voice, as long as I am able to raise my voice, I will not let these aggressive people destroy my society, my world.”
This is not an artist content to speak only through his Steinway. He’s fluent in English, German and Russian and also Twitter, though he doesn’t use that as much as he once did.
“Twitter is not a debate platform,” says Levit, 32. “I used to think it is. But I kind of more and more feel what used to be this phenomenally light, fantastic platform, which I really, really love became undisputedly an angry, schizophrenic bad place.”
His latest recording, “Life,” a two-disc set released in October, is a tribute to his friend Hannes Malte Mahler, a German performance artist who died in a bicycle accident in July 2016.
It includes Frederic Rzewski’s “A Mensch,” Liszt’s transcriptions from Wagner’s “Parsifal” and “Tristan und Isolde” and Bill Evans’ jazz work “Peace Piece.” Levit’s idea was: Start with darkness, end with brightness, capping it with the Evans’ composition as an “amen.”
Born in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, Levit moved with his family to Hanover, Germany, at 8, then to Berlin three years ago.
His Beethoven is especially in demand as the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth approaches in 2020.
Levit called his first piano “Lulu” after the title character in Berg’s opera and his second “Monk” after Thelonious.
But he’s not always a focused intellectual. For instance, when a flight was delayed for several hours, “I literally watched all four ‘Transformers’ movies in one go,” he says. “It was bad. It was really bad. And then I felt awful.”