Igor Levit: Tiny Desk Concert

Nov 22, 2019

When Russian-born pianist Igor Levit dropped in to play Beethoven at the Tiny Desk, he admitted he was – even after four cups of coffee – "still in my time zone change." A little jet-lagged, he had flown in from Berlin the night before and hopped an early train from New York to Washington, D.C.

But Levit easily slipped into his Beethoven zone – a space he knows all too well. Levit, 32, has been playing the German composer's music for half his life. He recently released a box set of all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas and once again he'll be performing complete cycles of the sonatas in various cities to mark the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth in 2020.

Levit's set placed the oddball, wryly-humored Andante from the neglected Tenth Sonata between two of the most famous pieces of western music: the opening movement of Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata and the tender, ubiquitous, bagatelle better known as "Für Elise."

Levit's "Moonlight" emphasized the mesmerizing qualities in the music, with its oscillating pulse, smoldering low end and tolling bells. The second piece proved Beethoven wasn't always the grumpy guy he's made out to be. His sly sense of humor percolates through the set of variations in a jaunty march rhythm, punctuated with a final, ironic, thundering chord. Levit closed with the ever popular "Für Elise." Sure, it's a "total eye-roller," Levit admits, but he also describes it as "one of the most beautiful treasures in the piano literature."

Here we see three distinct sides of Beethoven – foreboding, funny and fetching – from one of his most ardent and thoughtful advocates. Now what could be better than that as an overture to the big Beethoven year ahead?

SET LIST

  • Beethoven: "Piano Sonata No. 14 'Moonlight,' I. Adagio sostenuto"
  • Beethoven: "Piano Sonata No. 10, II. Andante"
  • Beethoven: "Bagatelle in A minor, 'Fur Elise'"

MUSICIAN

Igor Levit: piano

CREDITS

Producers: Tom Huizenga, Morgan Noelle Smith; Creative Director: Bob Boilen; Audio Engineers: Josh Rogosin, Alex Drewenskus; Videographers: Maia Stern, Kara Frame; Associate Producer: Bobby Carter; Production Assistant: Jack Corbett; Executive Producer: Lauren Onkey; VP, Programming: Anya Grundmann; Photo: Mhari Shaw/NPR

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF IGOR LEVIT PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "PIANO SONATA NO. 10")

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

That's Beethoven's 10th Piano Sonata being played by a master here at NPR headquarters.

(SOUNDBITE OF IGOR LEVIT PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "PIANO SONATA NO. 10")

SHAPIRO: The pianist Igor Levit is one of hundreds of musicians who have played a Tiny Desk Concert, a video series where an artist plays a short set behind a desk. No stage lights, no big crowd - these performances feel personal.

I'm used to seeing pianists dressed so formally for a recital. It's so nice to see you in jeans and a sweatshirt.

IGOR LEVIT: Well, yeah. I used to dress up formally all the time, and I kind of got rid of that. I don't like to schlep...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) You're like the tech CEO of the piano world - at the top of your field and wearing a hoodie.

LEVIT: Oh, give me more of that. I like that.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Levit was born in the Soviet Union in 1987 and moved to Germany when he was 8. He is considered one of today's top classical pianists. He proves that with his latest release, a nine-CD box set of all of Beethoven's piano sonatas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: It's a massive project - 32 sonatas, more than 10 hours of music - that coincides with the composer's 250th birthday next year. I sat down with Igor Levit at the Tiny Desk to talk about Beethoven, and we're going to weave some sound of his performance into the conversation.

How would you describe your relationship to Beethoven?

LEVIT: I feel as if his music is the one which allows me to express myself in the most direct way and in the most sort of believable way.

SHAPIRO: What do you mean by that?

LEVIT: I believe that one of the main reasons why his music still speaks to everybody in one way or the other is because it's so intense and so humane that it doesn't leave space for neutrality. You can't say, oh, I don't care. It really gives you the strongest feeling of participation, whoever you are. And so it allows me to really fall back on myself.

SHAPIRO: It's interesting that you say it doesn't give you the possibility of saying, I don't care...

LEVIT: No.

SHAPIRO: ...Because you described "Fur Elise" as one of the most well-known pieces of music in the world, and it can be an eye-roller because we've become almost numb to it. Is there a trick for letting people hear it as though for the first time?

LEVIT: Well, first of all, just hear it. That's trick No. 1.

(SOUNDBITE OF IGOR LEVIT PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "FUR ELISE")

LEVIT: No. 2 - stop talking about it as if it is just an eye-roller. I mean, it became because we made it one. I mean, music - the beauty about it is it's entirely free. It doesn't belong to anybody, and it belongs to everybody. Just allow yourself to feel and allow yourself to love or to not love. But I would say just listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF IGOR LEVIT PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "FUR ELISE")

SHAPIRO: As I hear you talk about Beethoven, I wonder whether you think of your relationship as with the composer who created these things or with the notes on the page, the marks on the staff.

LEVIT: Well, that's complicated. I like relationships with people who are actually alive.

(LAUGHTER)

LEVIT: No, I really mean it. I don't have, like, a picture of Beethoven hanging above my head, you know, at home watching me play his music. I don't believe in that, OK? So I can read as much as I want about him, and I did read a lot about him. But it's all secondhand or 350th-hand information. And whatever you read, if you don't know somebody, we always should be careful about these things. So all I have is what he left for all of us, which is his music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LEVIT: So I try to understand things through that. But not really just about who he was, but rather than about who I am. And I think that's what music mainly is there for. It reminds us about who we not only are but who we can be, how much we can feel, what pain we can feel, what love we can feel - I mean, just everything. It's not that I sit there every day and think, OK, what kind of guy was Beethoven like? That's not primarily what I think about. I'm a today's person, so I care about that.

SHAPIRO: The year 2020 is, of course, the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth. Do you think that we today hear these pieces of music differently from people centuries ago, when they were new?

LEVIT: Let me answer this way - I can't give you an exact quote. I would have to look it up. But Miles Davis once said that musicians hear music differently, automatically, from the past because the sounds you hear outside of your home are different than the ones 50 years ago. Cars sound different. I don't know. Signals sound different. We, as human beings, changed by 150% in the way who we are, how we think, how we feel, how our daily life functions. Just after the invention of the iPhone - I mean, just think about that.

So sort of the emotional environment changed. And when we change, what we hear changes for obvious reasons. So of course, we hear music differently, and the way I hear Beethoven today will change entirely in the next, I don't know, year or two or three or five. So the obvious response is, yes. Thank God, yes.

SHAPIRO: Can you listen back to a recording of, for example, the "Moonlight Sonata" that you made when you were just starting to learn the piano and hear not only a difference in skill but a difference in - because of where you were in your life?

LEVIT: Oh, totally. First of all, I don't listen to my own records.

SHAPIRO: OK (laughter).

LEVIT: I've done that mistake once.

(SOUNDBITE OF IGOR LEVIT PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "PIANO SONATA NO. 14")

LEVIT: And (laughter) I'll never do that again. I can listen to, let's say, you know, me playing 10, 15 years ago. Sure, I do. And I remember very well why I did what I did.

SHAPIRO: You have wide-ranging tastes in music, and even though this project is all Beethoven, you have recorded a huge, diverse range of composers. So when do you reach for Beethoven in your life? When you have free time and you sit down and you feel inspired, what is it that makes you say, this is a moment for Beethoven?

LEVIT: Oh, I can't say that. I mean, I work with Beethoven's music in one way or the other every single day of my life.

SHAPIRO: Really?

LEVIT: Yeah. So I - not necessarily at the piano. Sometimes I would just think about it. Sometimes, you know, it affects the way I play something else. But he plays a role in my life every day.

SHAPIRO: Igor Levit, thank you for talking with us.

LEVIT: Great pleasure.

SHAPIRO: You can watch Igor Levit's Tiny Desk Concert at nprmusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.