Igor Levit rarely does anything small. The acclaimed Russian-Jewish-German pianist raised eyebrows as a 26-year-old when, for his Sony Classical debut in 2013, he tackled Beethoven’s last five piano sonatas, considered by many to be among the most challenging and profound works ever composed.
Levit continued to set the bar high with his next recordings: Bach’s six partitas and an award-winning three-CD set of three massive scores — Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, Beethoven’s “33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli” and Frederic Rzewski’s 1975 “The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (36 Variations on a Chilean Song).”
For his March 9 recital at Hahn Hall at the Music Academy of the West in Montecito, Calif., Levit is scheduled to perform the second half of Rzewski’s 2014 suite “Dreams,” which is inspired by an Akira Kurosawa film, and Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations (Op. 120), an intense musical-intellectual-emotional Everest many pianists don’t usually attempt to climb until later in their careers.
“I don’t make my life easy sometimes,” Levit said by phone from Berlin. “People say you’re too young to play Beethoven before age 40, but without knowing the individual musician, without being in touch with the individual personality, to say, ‘Under 40, you should not play Beethoven’ is, to put it in short form, BS.”
The pianist said Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations set has always been “the pinnacle” for him. “I’ve been living with it longer than any other score, working on it longer than any other,” he said. “When Leonard Cohen passed away, a friend wrote that probably the only adequate obituary must be ‘Go listen.’ That’s it. Here I would say the same. There’s much more to say, but first thing, go listen.”
Levit was born in Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod) in Russia in 1987. His family took up permanent residence in Hanover, Germany, when he was 8. Levit said he learned German “in a couple of weeks.”
Though he still speaks Russian fluently, Levit said he has few memories of the country. “I’ve been back twice for brief visits, the last time 15 years ago,” he said. “Through my parents I know a lot, but I can’t recall anything, almost.”
After 21 years in Hanover, Levit moved to Berlin last year. He said the city — whose thriving, close-knit artistic community and culture have attracted many Jewish musicians over the past decade — offers a unique kind of freedom.
“Berlin hasn’t found itself yet,” Levit said. “This is a very beautiful thing, because the city is open to questions, to new ideas. It was only 27 years ago that Berlin was reunited. And what is 27 years? I am older than 27. Berlin still hasn’t decided who it is, and thank God it hasn’t. There are about a million identities and answers to the question, ‘Who or what is Berlin?’ ”
Levit said that while he’s not observant, he identifies as Jewish. And while he is socially and politically outspoken, he harbors no illusions about the power of music to affect the world’s current political situation.
“It’s very tricky and complicated,” Levit said. “I don’t think it is possible to change anything with music. It can help, but people make decisions. We have to act. Music can and should inspire ideas and create a certain environment. But just because you love Beethoven doesn’t necessarily make you a good human being.”
To inspire, music should somehow reflect the current time, Levit said. For him, it’s not enough to study the era in which a composer lived.
“It’s important, but only one-half of what is important,” Levit said. “The other half is, ‘I’m a child — a person — of my time and not of the composer’s time.’ ”
Whether he’s confronting a new score like Rzewski’s “Dreams” or a classic such as Beethoven’s 1823 “Diabelli” Variations, he keeps an open mind.
“I can hear what I read,” Levit said. “I start learning a piece for the first time without preconditions. I play it and certain ideas arrive and disappear. I see what I see.”
Levit counts pianists Artur Schnabel and Marc-André Hamelin among his major influences. “I don’t know a single recording of any Beethoven piece which is as alive, incredible, insane, unpredictable and inspiring as Schnabel’s Beethoven recordings,” Levit said. “And Hamelin has a huge responsibility for my repertoire curiosity. Without his recording, I wouldn’t have known about Rzewski’s ‘The People United’ and many other scores.”
Like Hamelin’s, Levit’s wide repertory includes rarely performed works. When he made his Southern California debut in 2015 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, he performed British composer Ronald Stevenson’s “Fantasy on ‘Peter Grimes.’ ” So don’t expect Chopin anytime soon. Indeed, a London newspaper once quoted Levit as calling Chopin “dumb.”
“That was a misinterpretation,” Levit said. “I never said Chopin was dumb. On the contrary, I love listening to Chopin’s music. There are pianists who play him in the most incredible way. It’s only me playing it. I don’t feel comfortable.”
Levit is currently in the middle of performing a complete cycle of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas, and he’s working on Shostakovich’s cycle of 24 Preludes and Fugues. His future plans include more Schumann — “I love playing his concerto” — and eventually some Liszt. “But there are so many things going on now that he’s in the back room.”
Meanwhile, Levit said he takes his roles as both musician and citizen seriously. “This society was created and built by responsible fellows,” Levit said. “To say, ‘Oh, well, I’m a musician and I’m making art, so don’t bother me with daily life’ is arrogant and wrong. I am a citizen of my country who happens to be a musician, and not vice versa.”