(Alex Ross’s article appeared in The New Yorker, 5/11.)
He’s a political activist. His repertory is vast. And, during Germany’s shutdown, he streamed more than fifty performances from home. It’s made him question what a concert can be.
On March 10th, the German pianist Igor Levit played Beethoven’s Third and Fifth Piano Concertos at the Elbphilharmonie, the hulking concert complex in Hamburg. It was his thirty-third birthday and, it turned out, his last public concert for many weeks. The next day, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, delivered a dire warning about the scope of the looming coronavirus pandemic, and performance spaces began closing across the country. At the time, Levit had a full schedule before him. He had recently issued a boxed-set recording of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas, and was playing Beethoven cycles in several European cities. He was also preparing to tackle an arcane colossus of the piano literature—the seventy-minute Piano Concerto by the early-twentieth-century composer-virtuoso Ferruccio Busoni, a hero of his.
“That next day, the eleventh, was kind of a shock day,” Levit told me recently, in a video call from his apartment, in Berlin. “On the twelfth, I was shopping in a grocery store, and I had this thought: What if I live-streamed a gig?” He peered into his phone with a grin. He is a trim young man with sharp features, a high Mahlerian hairline, and a thin growth of beard. He was wearing a T-shirt that read “Love Music Hate Racism.” He speaks rapidly and incisively, his English nearly as good as his German. Sometimes he seems more mature than his years, poised and oracular; at others, he comes across as an antic, restless member of his digital-native generation.
Levit went on, “When I got home, I did what I usually do, which is to throw a thought into the public arena without thinking about any consequences. I went on Twitter and said, ‘O.K., I’m going to play for you guys tonight at my place.’ After having tweeted that, I realized, Hang on—I’ve never streamed anything, I know shit about streaming, I don’t even know if Twitter allows thirty minutes of streaming, I have no camera stand. I had a total panic. I was sending messages to friends: ‘Do you know how streaming works?’ And this tweet was already out there. It was a catastrophe. I ran to the last electronics store that was still open, and got some stuff for twenty-four euros.”
I saw Levit’s tweet and tuned in. The setting was familiar, because I had met with him there the previous summer. He lives in a spacious, airy, sparely decorated apartment in the Mitte neighborhood of Berlin, with plate-glass windows overlooking a park. His instrument is a 1923 Steinway B that once belonged to the great Swiss pianist Edwin Fischer. At 7 p.m., Levit pressed the Record button on his smartphone and trotted in front of his newly acquired home-Webcasting equipment, dressed casually in a black-and-gray pullover shirt and black pants. He gave a brief introduction, in German and English: “It’s a sad time, it’s a weird time, but acting is better than doing nothing. Let’s bring the house concert into the twenty-first century.” He then tore into Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata, in a fashion typical of him—precipitate, purposeful, intricately nuanced. It was an imposing structure aglow with feeling.
Other pianists of Levit’s generation may have achieved wider mass-market fame—Lang Lang and Yuja Wang come first to mind—but none have comparable stature as a cultural or even a political figure. In German-speaking countries, Levit is a familiar face not only to classical-music fans but also to a broader population that shares his leftist, internationalist world view. He has appeared on mainstream German TV shows; participated in political panel discussions; and attended the annual gathering of the Green Party, playing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the anthem of the European Union. It was no surprise that Levit’s inaugural live stream attracted attention, though I was taken aback when the number of viewers climbed into the tens of thousands.
In the following weeks, as Levit kept Webcasting each night, a convivial online community formed around him on Twitter and its Periscope app—a self-described “Igor Familie.” Periscope includes a chat-room sidebar, with hearts floating up the screen like bubbles. Most comments were in German, but there were salutations from Nairobi, Tokyo, and Montevideo. Some viewers made musicological points—“New harmonic structures become transparent,” one person wrote when Levit tackled Brahms’s arrangement of the Bach Chaconne in D Minor—while others discussed the pianist’s facial hair, T-shirts, and footwear. “Hard rock fan from Düsseldorf is thrilled,” one commenter said. Levit delivered short talks, usually focussed on the music at hand. He never spoke at the end, though emotion sometimes surfaced. Once, halfway through Schubert’s sublime Sonata in B-flat, he buried his head in his hands, hiding tears; he did the same after Morton Feldman’s solitary, unearthly “Palais de Mari.”