Film/Art | The People United Will Never Be Defeated: Igor Levit’s Hauskonzerts

By Shelly Kraicer

Every day, a brief tweet with a time and a URL: it’s usually for 7:00 pm Berlin time, 1:00 pm in eastern North America. At almost precisely 7:00 pm, we click, and a 9:16 aspect ratio window opens. The view, about ten degrees left from perpendicular, shows the keyboard and the left half of a grand piano, a painting and a couple of lamps hanging in view. Igor Levit, dressed casually, wearing socks or slippers, walks onscreen and sits on his piano stool. He talks for about five to ten minutes, first in German, then in English. Then he plays: Beethoven, Liszt, Shostakovich, Billy Joel. Twitter/Periscope’s muffled, distorted sound and low-definition image offers anywhere from 15 to 150 minutes of the most intensely charged piano playing I’ve ever heard. The set ends, Levit clutches his head, pounds his thigh, then walks towards the camera and shuts off the phone. This pattern repeats for an extraordinary 52 days (with very rare breaks), from March 12 to May 4.

One usually looks to art galleries and film festivals for a sense of what’s on the avant-garde edge of sound-and-image art. For these pandemic-laden months, with galleries and cinemas shuttered, something extraordinary is happening in the most tradition-bound art, Western classical music—or Western art music, as I prefer to call it. It’s not just Levit, though he stands at the head of an astonishingly vital set of online streaming sessions. Events like Bang on a Can Marathon, Music Never Sleeps, and performers as disparate as the Berlin Philharmonic, veteran pianist Angela Hewitt, and young pianist Tiffany Poon are inventing pathways to experience, communally and distanced. All from an art form that has been declared dead long before the “death of cinema” became a thing.

Igor Levit is a 33-year-old classical pianist living in Berlin. He was born in Nizhny Novgorod when it was called Gorky, in the USSR (the city of Andrei Sakharov’s exile). His family emigrated to Hanover in 1995, and he calls himself a “European citizen.” He rapidly came to the art-music world’s notice with dazzling recordings and performances of the Bach keyboard partitas, which he followed with a preciously magisterial box set of all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas. His Jewish ethnicity certainly informed his unusual prominence as an outspoken anti-racist commentator, especially since a notorious incident when, before a concert in Germany last year, an anonymous anti-Semite threatened him with assassination.

As COVID-19 pandemic restrictions led to the suspension of concert performances, Levit realized he still needed to play for people. He describes his decision as impulsive: he bought a stand for his phone, and that same day (March 12), tweeted out and played his first Hauskonzert, Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata, Opus 53 in C major, from his apartment—just a man, a piano, a cellphone, and a social-media infrastructure that permitted him to play to as many people as choose to listen. Several hundred to a thousand people have listened “live” to each Hauskonzert since, and anywhere from 25,000 to 100,000 have watched each archived stream, which are still available. (By comparison, Wigmore Hall in London holds about 550 people; Carnegie Hall holds 2,800.)

The Waldstein is core Beethoven, and Levit’s performance of it exemplifies what makes him both unique and essential now. Levit knows: he repeated it when he was invited by German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier to give his 22nd Hauskonzert in the Great Hall of Bellevue Palace. The Waldstein is a sonata about the impossibility of sonata form. Briefly, all Western art music from the early 18th century to the end of the 19th is based on sonata form. It’s the musical equivalent of narrative, transformed structurally into the language of tonality: as in, say, The Odyssey, a protagonist starts at home, wanders far, and must find her way back. Typically, a protagonist/antagonist drama plays out: the hero has a home key (here C major), while an antagonist or adversary is introduced in a contrasting key (here it’s G major, the “closest” key in feel to C major). End of exposition, which poses the problem: difference must be overcome. The development section brings elements of these two characters into contrast and opposition, as we wander through more and more distant keys (our Odyssey) until we reach the happy end, and the G-major antagonist is assimilated back into the home key of C major. Beethoven’s sonatas (and everyone else’s mutatis mutandis, up until Schoenberg) all work this way, especially in their first movements. 

Yet the Waldstein makes us understand how problematic this narrative can be. The opening theme is a nervous tremble (Levit plays at an exceptionally fast tempo, turning alternation into shuddering, anxious energy); the second theme is impossibly suave and calm. The two can’t be brought together except through musical acts of extreme violence. And here is where Levit excels and differs from most other virtuoso pianists, who typically strive to make it seem easy, to bury the seams, to make it fun and magical. Levit finds the disruptive, savage noise inside Beethoven: he enacts gaps, clashes, momentary incoherencies, pauses and whirlwind changes in tone and tempo. The piece is “saying” that reason can’t possibly make sense of these materials, that the world can’t be understood and tamed. Violence shouts out, uncontrolled, and threatens to topple this structure of human reason. Levit’s supercharged and fearlessly expressive playing enacts this anxiety of imminent collapse that always lurks deep inside Beethoven’s edifices. Rumblings, smashes, whispers, and violent turns—it’s only through extreme gestures of irrationality that Levit brings the first movement under control and launches it to a seemingly stable end. But at what cost? 

The second movement is typically a slow, elegiac, lyrical excursus into some promised land of peace and rationality. Levit again accentuates how Beethoven’s lines speak until they break; this is close to recitative (the plot-expository “prose” in opera). The effect here, in a non-vocal piece, seems to indicate, “I am speaking. Listen closely, it’s urgent.” Levit describes the final movement as a celebration of harmony, an affirmation of togetherness, but his playing again italicizes the perilous balance on the edge of a cliff that Beethoven’s music enacts. Levit takes Beethoven’s coda at an impossibly fast speed, like a Looney Tunes cartoon on comically devilish fast forward. The end seems impossible to reach, but we have to: in a blur of pure speed, we jump off the cliff. It’s exhilarating, and exhausting. A “normal” piano virtuoso would deliver a pleasant, athletic thrill, but Levit gives a lesson—a demanding, collaborative one, between audience and performer—in how difficult it is make and sustain meaning in the world.

That sense of a barely and only momentarily achieved equilibrium underlies Levit’s performances, and gives this vast and crazy Hauskonzert project a kind of logic. In his generous introductions to each session, Levit shares his gratitude for allowing him to sustain himself by playing these pieces for us; one senses that, as echoed in the Waldstein opening’s anxious trembling, something is driving Levit to play. He needs to create and sustain this intense, culturally mediated discursive exchange with an audience for his own survival. That this is happening in a pandemic, when all of us are, to various degrees, wracked by a sense that the stable underpinnings of our lives are collapsing, this psychic social state allows Levit to create a reciprocal kind of dependence and generosity. While Levit invites us to rescue him from his own fears and loneliness, he meets our similar needs with open, unbounded generosity. We are saving each other, I think.

Levit played 15 of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas, all variations on the simultaneous necessity and impossibility of reason. Sometimes things almost work out; sometimes the falling apart is more memorable than the salvaging. Hauskonzert No. 32 (April 12) featured Beethoven’s final, most sublime, sonata, Opus 111 in C minor. In this piece, the gulf between noise and music, between unreason and reason, is ripped right open. The first movement is rough, ugly, and violent, a challenge for players and listeners. Then follows a theme and variations of increasing abstraction that move from a kind of Apollonian lyrical stillness through increasingly free rhythmic play until the notes dissolve, narrative is suspended, and trills—two notes played in alternation, insubstantiality made concrete—take over. We are transported somewhere we don’t belong, where time is suspended and we imagine we see and hear pure form. Levit’s account doesn’t conventionally split the two worlds brutally: there is no choice between hell and heaven, ugliness and beauty. He turns Opus 111 into something like King Lear, where existential fear and a confrontation with absolute loss make possible an extraordinary access to gentle, intimate humanity. “Never, never, never, never, never!”—Levit makes Beethoven’s trills utter Lear’s climactic words, with humility and wonder rather than defiance.

The way Levit fearlessly exposes the structural violence of Beethoven’s sonatas, his way of luxuriating in the high noise-to-beauty ratio, reminds me of the way that Godard’s films tease audiences with their own lust for narrativity. From his more or less “well-behaved” ’60s narrative exercises through his deconstructive ’80s experiments to his fragmentary memories-of-narrative recent visual/aural texts, Godard, exhibiting both generosity and rigour, exposes our desire for narrative: he provokes, prods, and seduces us to become aware that narrativity is ideologically enforced, that our desire for stories is an ideological effect (of power, of conservative sense-making, of centuries of cultural training). And like Beethoven, Godard provides narrative pleasure in the very works in which he disrupts it, tantalizing us with a just-out-of-reach promise that things will make a kind of sense, if only we apply the correct amount of disciplining violence.

But Levit isn’t just a Beethoven specialist: he makes musical structure and logic audible. Not by smoothing it out and rationalizing it, but rather by exposing—at the cost of serious, sustained audience discomfort—its rough spots, incoherence, and crazy-making potential. 

Levit has given us a lot of Bach over the 52 days—about two hours out of a total of over 34 hours of music (and intros)—and I think we can consider his Bach to be his psychic “anchor,” a laboratory where structures do hold, and logic and reason enforce a (theoretical) calm. (The later Romantic/early modernist Ferruccio Busoni is his counter-anchor, a maverick experimentalist whose transmutations of Bach chorales and wildly demanding Fantasia Contrappuntistica seem built for Levit.)The next-to-last Hauskonzert was, inevitably, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a piece associated with Levit since his astonishing collaborative performance at the Park Avenue Armory with Marina Abramović in 2015. Levit’s Bach pulses with energy, but he lays out its structural brilliance for our edification. The theme plays at the beginning and the end; in between are 30 variations of three types, which cycle in groups of three: A1 B1 C1 A2 B2 C2, etc. A’s are genre pieces such as dance forms; B’s are showy, virtuosity hand-crossing pieces for two-keyboard harpsichords (Levit seems to defy physiology and physics as his hands play right through each other); C’s are canons, rigorously sub-organized: the second, staggered repetition of the melody of each enters one note higher in each subsequent canon. One thinks of similar structural experimental pleasures in the rigorous avant-garde films of Michael Snow and James Benning: a Goldberg effect might result if Benning systematically interleaved 13 Lakes (2004) with Ten Skies (2004) and RR (2007). Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide II (2009) uses an uncannily similar procedure: its step-by-step 45-degree shift in camera position takes us right around a table, just as Bach goes around a scale. Levit’s emotional stake in Bach makes this music a counterweight to the anxiety and out-of-balance metaphysics Levit finds embedded in Beethoven and the Romantics.

I think I learned most from Levit’s 17 modern and contemporary Hauskonzerts. He has a particular affinity for Shostakovich, to whom he devoted three days; perhaps he finds a contemporary personal resonance in the Soviet composer’s naked, soul-baring nervous intensity, his dogged devotion to classical forms in the face of Stalinist “socialist realist” brutality. The apex of the whole Hauskonzert experience was Levit’s astonishing performance of all 24 of Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues, Opus 87. This monumental tribute to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier lasts two-and-a-half hours, which is what Levit gave us in the memorable Hauskonzert No. 16 (March 27). These are miniature utterances in a private, arcane, even solipsistic language that model baroque forms (the “formalism” official Stalinist musicology proscribed) and at the same time open vistas into the most incomprehensibly painful personal psychology. Levit responded to the challenges of balancing shockingly intimate discourse and exhaustingly epic scale with a pianistic tour de force. Creativity, a moment-to-moment invention of language and of new discursive modes, seemed to pass directly from Shostakovich through Levit to us. We were privileged (and challenged) to enter and respond to the secret language of this oneiric world. There’s no more triumphant answer to public state repression: I can’t think of more political acts than writing these pieces, and then recreating them for us.

Levit the activist was most obvious in several programs of overtly political music. At the beginning of Hauskonzert No. 30 (April 10), Levit announced that today’s “is not an easy program. These are not easy times. It’s an angry program. I’m an angry guy right now. And I think many should be.” Absolutely. He gave us Paul Dessau’s searing, explosive anti-fascist piece Guernica (after Picasso, 1938), followed by Frederic Rzewski’s stirring, improvisatory Which Side Are You On (1978). Finally, he played former high modernist turned Marxist/Maoist Cornelius Cardew’s Thälmann Variations (1986), a piece in a deliberately leftist populist style whose accessibility and militancy were intended to overthrow the ruling class. One thinks, again, of Godard’s parallel move post-1968 to simplify and refine his filmmaking with Jean-Pierre Gorin in the Groupe Dziga Vertov: both Godard/Gorin and Cardew make works whose formal difficulty may have attenuated the force with which they inspired the working classes, but both displayed an absolute idealism that art can make a difference. And, in Levit’s hands, it certainly does.

New music forms the other pole of Levit’s playing. It was thrilling to listen to Levit apply his seemingly inexhaustible technique and eerily manic intensity to Rzewski, especially his bravura, hour-long variations on The People United Will Never Be Defeated (in Hauskonzert No. 2), a sprawling, gloriously dramatic tour through inspiration, uprising, victory, disillusion, defeat, and hope (following Rzewski’s instructions, Levit slams the keyboard lid, whistles, and makes otherwise violent intrusions into the piano’s sound space). At the opposite end of the affective spectrum was Hauskonzert No. 45, Morton Feldman’s late masterpiece Palais de Mari (1986), 25 minutes of meditative rhythmic pattern-shifting, which Levit played simultaneously rapt and relaxed. We heard airy openness, empty space through which Levit frees us from our perception of time; it’s a way of being in the world, a kind of philosophical therapy for the bloody, weary, and angst-ridden. Feldman’s structures pulse within a stillness that dissolves restrictions, that opens space to be free and constructive and healing—perfect music for the pandemic era. 

What makes the experience of watching and listening to Levit so compelling at this moment? It has something to do with the way he combines quotidian and arcane tech, for one: the DIY aspect of a cellphone and stand, a standard internet connection and free social media software, a regular apartment with natural lighting, plus an utterly non-everyday Steinway Model D concert grand. All of this, plus the utterly non-standard technique in Levit’s fingers, mind, and spirit, connect him to a remote, live audience watching on everyday equipment. This is not a collective experience, and at the same time it is. We’re participating simultaneously in something communal and collective, while the pandemic lockdown atomizes us. We’re far from the expensive, punishingly formal realm of classical-music public performance, and just as far from the experience of sitting together watching a recorded, infinitely reproducible digital file (or 35 or 16mm film) in a dark room or hushed gallery space. These are live, intimate, one-off performances, distanced but also without any distance, artist direct to viewer. Levit has taken elements with which we are all familiar and created a new sound and image connection in a newly atomized world. For this emergency, he’s an intellect-engaging, soul- and psyche-healing first responder. We’re incredibly lucky to have had him, for 52 precious days. I think we still need more.