A memorable evening with Igor Levit and Bach at Ravinia
Three hours of Johann Sebastian Bach on the piano may seem daunting to some. And to be sure Wednesday night’s Ravinia Festival audience thinned out before the end of the evening.
But for most in the Martin Theatre who stayed for the duration and discovered the remarkable artistry of Igor Levit in his Chicago-area debut the time seemed to fly by.
The Russian pianist’s ambitious program replicated his recent Sony Classics release, offering all six of Bach’s keyboard Partitas, BWV 825-830. The works were performed in numerical order with two intermissions, after Nos. 2 and 4. That can be a long haul, even with music on as rarefied a level as these Bach masterworks.
Yet Levit uncovered such a varied, inviting and sensitively calibrated world of feeling and expression that the mind was always engaged and the ear was consistently beguiled. Not only was this some of the most beautiful Bach playing I’ve ever heard; it was also some of the most beautiful piano playing I’ve ever heard, period.
Levit possesses a commanding technical arsenal. Playing from memory throughout the long evening, his Bach was polished and vigorous, ingeniously varied in repeats and with a consistent clarity of voicings even in the densest contrapuntal thickets.
What raised Levit’s Bach out of the ordinary was his interpretive intelligence and tonal sensitivity. In some ways, Levit’s style is a throwback to a more freely expressive style. Tempos tended to be more stately and phrases more legato and rounded, a far cry from the clipped, brittle staccato Bach of some historically minded keyboard interpreters. Yet with its bracing vitality and eschewing of sentimentality, Levit’s Bach never felt Romanticized or anachronistic.
The opening movements of each Partita set the tone for the sections that followed: the Praeludium of the First Partita had a sense of buoyant inevitability, the Sinfonia of No. 2 was biting dramatic, and the Toccata of No. 6 almost jarring in its bleak, jabbing minor-key insistence.
The dance-like Allemande sections and the Aria of No. 4 went with graceful lilt and charm, and the gamboling Courantes were playful and vivacious. Levit showed he could also unleash breakout virtuosity as in the Scherzo of No. 3 and bravura concluding Gigue of No. 4.
Yet what stays in the memory is the delicacy and natural eloquence he brought to the inward sections. His poised and searching Sarabandes breathed with a spacious, supple quality. Levit explored the spare introspection with a tinge of melancholy and nuanced palette of hues and dynamics. In the vast, ruminative Allemande of No. 4–the largest movement of all six Partitas–time seemed to stand still, as Levit patiently assayed this music with a depth of feeling that was almost unearthly.
Igor Levit is clearly one of the most gifted keyboard artists to make a Chicago debut in recent years. Ravinia should immediately snap him up for a return engagement.