“Beethoven’s music compels me to be curious”

Pianist Igor Levit in conversation

(Photo: Felix Broede)

Playing in the face of lockdown. During the corona pandemic, probably no other pianist has been as present in digital concert formats as Igor Levit. He is best known to audiences as a Beethoven interpreter in particular. His passion for the works of the First Viennese School composer is infectious, enthralling and inspiring. On 6 March, Igor Levit appears with the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time in Berlin playing Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto. The performance, under the baton of Paavo Järvi, will be broadcast in the Digital Concert Hall live from the Philharmonie Berlin. In our interview, the artist explains why Beethoven is such an important composer for him, what he loves about the Fifth Piano Concerto and why the Berliner Philharmoniker inspire him.

In 2015, you made your debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker at the Baden-Baden Easter Festival with Schumann’s Piano Concerto. How did you feel about this first performance with the orchestra?
I remember that it was tremendously exciting for me. The request came at very short notice, because Martha Argerich was supposed to play the concert and she had cancelled. I had just given a guest performance at the Heidelberger Frühling nearby and came, so to speak, from a chamber music rehearsal straight into the orchestra rehearsal. I remember very clearly that I was excited – in a positive sense. Suddenly I was sitting in front of this orchestra that I had known and admired since my childhood!

What do you admire about the Berliner Philharmoniker?
The way their performances are shaped by every single musician; this energy, this will, this striving for every note. When I first experienced the orchestra live as a listener in 2003, I exploded with delight. This is a special group of musicians.

Last year, you toured playing mainly the Beethoven sonatas. When did your first encounter with Beethoven’s music take place and what did it spark in you?
My most formative experience with Beethoven’s music was when I was 13 years old: I grew up in Hanover and heard the Missa solemnis there for the first time. What an impression! The grandeur, the radicalism and – yes, also the volume of the music overwhelmed me. A little later, I played the Diabelli Variations for the first time and discovered the variety and immensity of this work. Every time I play it, I am struck by something new. Basically, I can say: Beethoven’s music compels me to be curious, to discover.

You are now playing Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto with the Philharmoniker. It begins with a sweeping, improvisatory gesture by the pianist. Beethoven himself was considered an outstanding pianist. How do you picture Beethoven the pianist?
He must have been a great improviser – playing very freely and song-like. The Fifth Piano Concerto is considered Beethoven’s most bombastic piano concerto, but it also has many dark and ambivalent moments. In no other concerto are there so many passages in which the pianist just accompanies the orchestra.

How do the soloist and orchestra interact in this work?
The orchestra and soloist are on an equal footing, they are equal partners and conduct an intensive dialogue. In this concerto, I enjoy most the parts where I as the soloist am not in the foreground, but communicate with the orchestra. Beethoven took a big step towards the symphonic concerto here.

What moods does Beethoven guide his listeners through, and what story does he want to tell with this work?
I don’t want to prescribe anything: music is a very free art form. It belongs to no one and to everyone at the same time. I leave it to the listeners to make up their own minds about this.

Debut at the Baden-Baden Easter Festival in 2015

Rehearsal Concert
(Photo: Danny Clinch)
Final applause