Igor Levit: I am not the composer’s servant. Where would he be without me?

Igor Levit: I am not the composer’s servant. Where would he be without me?


norman lebrecht

July 23, 2019

From the pianist’s combative interview with Neue Zürcher Zeitung:

Sie treten also dem verbreiteten Ideal entgegen, wonach der Interpret in erster Linie Diener des Notentextes ist?

Ich fühle mich nicht als Diener, auch nicht als Meister von irgendwem. Für mich lautet die Frage nicht: Was wären wir ohne die Komponisten, sondern: Was wären die Komponisten ohne uns? Die Interpretation ist meine persönliche Resonanz auf die durch den Notentext an mich herangetragenen Informationen. Aber diese Informationen sind manchmal so voller Ungewissheiten, dass ich mit denen erst einmal klarkommen muss. Eine Umsetzung funktioniert niemals schlicht eins zu eins. Bei Beethoven kommt hinzu, dass er an vielen Stellen aus dem musikalischen Rahmen (nicht nur) seiner Zeit auszubrechen versucht, um in etwas Anderes, Neues vorzudringen.



  • Comment as a guest says:

    “Was wären die Komponisten ohne uns?” Well, Beethoven would still be Beethoven, which is not the same the other way. round

    • fflambeau says:

      The question, as so often occurs (even in Beethoven), what was in the score and is there a mistake (leading for lots of room for interpretation). Even in Beethoven’s famous, FÜR ELISE, for example, it is not clear not only who this Elise was but also things like should there be a D or an E in measure 7, or in measure 74, an E or an F. Scholars disagree.

      When Beethoven himself played his 5th piano concerto, half of the score was left blank.

      Or take the famous 5th symphony opening. Gerard Scharz, a well-known conductor, explains there are different ways of approaching the famous 4 note theme: “The next moment is the hardest moment for the conductor. Some conductors actually cut off this half note with the fermata. And they add an extra bar so it would sound ♪ Ba ba ba bam ♪ and then ♪ Ba ba ba bam ♪ cut off. ♪ Ba ba ba bam ba ba ba ♪ they add a whole bar. ♪ Many conductors do this. I don’t, I think it’s wrong. I think if Beethoven wanted to have an extra bar, he would have written an extra bar. The reason that some conductors do that is because if you notice, the next entrance, so if you count the bar, one, two, three, four, five the sixth bar is marked with a p. The p means piano, which obviously means softly. The second violins begin softly. The problem is that when you play loudly, and the next note, if it’s soft, won’t be audible. And so it’s very tricky, to cut off the loud and at the same give a beat for the soft. So what I do, I hold that second fermata with intensity, I come up, I release and I bounce. And when I bounce up, the second violins know to begin.” Source: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/music/music-masterpieces-old-new/ludwig-van-beethoven-music/v/gerard-schwarz-gives-a-conducting-lesson-beethoven-5th-part-1

      So the score is often not “clear” and unwavering. And of course, in many cases, the question is what really is the score?

      • John Borstlap says:

        The score is that booklike object where the individual pages are printed or written with hieroglyphs which are understandable for professional musicians.

        Composers and publishers take endless care to get a readable, correct score of a musical work. And still there may be little misprints or ambiguous details. But yet, the score has the strongest authority in performance.

      • MusicBear88 says:

        I believe that the half-empty score was the 3rd Piano Concerto; Beethoven was no longer playing by the time he wrote the 5th, which is why it has that “non-cadenza” in the first movement.

  • christopher storey says:

    This pianist ( whose talent is perhaps not quite as extensive as he thinks it is ) is becoming more ridiculous by the minute. It is sad to see someone with some talent, even if it is not exactly top-line talent, starting to destroy themselves by the development of conceit and hubris. It is all a bit reminiscent of a certain violinist , who WAS a first class musician when he started out , but went steadily downhill for similar reasons

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      Agree, but Mr. Levit is not alone. Hubris is especially problematic in young people just now, the ‘me’ generation. By the way, my impression is that Mr. Levit plays better in his recordings than in concerts, but he has ‘something’ that his contemporaneous ‘star’ pianists lack.

      • John Sorel says:

        [[ but he has ‘something’ that his contemporaneous ‘star’ pianists lack. ]]

        A contract with Sony Classics.

  • Gary says:

    Levit would be sitting in front of a keyboard with nothing to do without the composer. Also he says composers. He’s not as gender specific as the headline suggests.

    • V. Lind says:

      Oh, grow up and leave sex out of it. (And the word is sex, not gender, the latter being a grammatical term). The headline is perfectly correct unless you are married to the political correctness that has infested our lives for the past three decades.

  • John Sorel says:

    Where would Igor Levitt be without composers?

  • erich says:

    This man is increasingly becoming a royal pain the arse. Sure, he is a hugely talented pianist but he seems to be suffering from the disease which tends to infect over-publicised artists: the need to open his mouth and spout about every and any subject which takes their fancy. More humility is required and just to rely on his fingers to do the talking.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    I feel that Mr. Levit is right. Most composers are forgotten soon after their time, mostly because of their intrinsic quality The works of a very few of them, e.g. Beethoven, ‘live’ further with uninterrupted public success and varying influence on living composers, and the works of another few, e.g. Bach, are ‘rediscovered’ and ‘live’ further with public success and varying influence on living composers – such works can be called ‘the Canon’. To be included in the Canon, a work must have characteristics that give them favorable consideration by the interpreters, the musicians whom will play them to the public – in a sense, it’s a Darwinian process i n which ‘good’ but ‘interpreter-unfriendly’ works don’t live further than their première, and that in very successful cases degenerates in ‘completism’, a nearly irrational phenomenon that places every note written by a few composers in the Canon – e.g. Beethoven’s two ‘Sonatines’ and other occasional pieces that would not be remembered if they were not by Beethoven. Some great names (e.g. Liszt) ‘survive’ because they are championed by a very few interpreters, other would not be ‘world famous’ without a prestigious interpreter (without Toscanini, Richard Strauss would be great only in the ‘Germansphere’, more or less – or maybe a little more – in the same way as Max Reger).

    • Sixtus says:

      Strauss was already famous outside the Germansphere before Toscanini was famous outside the Italosphere. Strauss didn’t need championing by anybody, though being favored by von Bülow early on certainly helped.

  • Novagerio says:

    Bach – Mozart – Beethoven – Schubert – Schumann – Chopin – Liszt – Brahms – Scriabin – Rachmaninoff – Prokofiev etc would still be around Igor. The funniest thing is that I’ve never even heard about you.

  • Caravaggio says:

    Composer and performer would be nothing without each other.

  • There has been a strong historical trend to eliminate performers. With the advent of synths and personal computers, the musician’s union membership in LA has dropped by about two thirds since the 1970s. Very little of the television music now heard is acoustic or performed by humans. We’ve become so accustomed to this that the sound tracks for old TV shows, where people are blowing through, scraping on, and banging on things sounds weirdly hokey and notably contrived.

    In some circles, the idea is extended to the concept that composers and performers would benefit if they were mostly free from each other. Composers would have much more freedom of action if released from the need for performers. And performers would be more creative if they created their own music through composing or improvisation.

    In his keynote address for a computer music conference some years ago, Joel Chadabe, a central figure in the field, said, “We want a holistic instrument that stresses the intellect and isn’t dependent on the body. We can play the sounds of a cityscape. Why do you need a body for that?” Even though he is not against the body, he spoke of it as an unnecessary hindrance to music-making, a limitation to freedoms of the intellect.

    There are, of course, massive limitations to his visions, and confused concepts about the integration of the mind and body in musical expression, but it tells us something of what the future might hold. And a future that is already largely here.

    • John Borstlap says:

      And a destructive trend as well: it is for the people who hear only the noise music makes and not the music. It is part of a dehumanizing tendency among people ignorant of and hostile to real life: to make everything abstract and disembodied. They are only happy when humanity exists exclusively of brains in formaldehyde tanks connected to computers on settlements on mars.

  • John Borstlap says:

    A very arrogant and ignorant man.

    The classical music culture is the result of various parties working together, forming a whole: composer, performer, (in case of larger groups: staff members, management), audience, critic, academic. But they are of different importance within this whole. Central is the composer, closely followed by the performer and the audience, and after that: academic and critic. It is the imagination of the composer who creates the contents of the music culture in the first place, working together with the performer who has to re-imagine the original idea as embedded in the score. Since not everything can be notated, the performer has to bring his/her subjective musicality (= musical imagination & understanding) into play to bring the score to life and the talents necessary to be able to do that, are considerable and close to the composer’s talents. But the difference between these talents is the capacity to imagine expression, structure, narrative etc. out of ‘nothing’, which is a different type of talent that the understanding and perception of the performer. In the end, a musical performance is a collaborative project of various and relatively different types of talents.

  • fflambeau says:

    Good for him. For those who believe that the score is sacred, perhaps they do not know that many composers left scores that are not clearly notated (making interpretation essential), like Bach.

    And many time, it is not clear exactly what the score is: see Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition as an example.

  • fflambeau says:

    Igor Levit is correct.

    From a very good essay on Beethoven called, “The power of the performer: interpreting Beethoven,” by Janet Levy in the Journal of Musicology (2001):

    “no matter how much a performer seeks to understand and convey what a composer intended, there can be no performance without interpretation…. .”

    She also points out the obvious: “There are many “Beethoven Fifths”, including different approaches by giants like Norrington, Toscanini, Bernstein, and Furtwängler.


    • John Borstlap says:

      Nobody would contest the importance of interpretation, and music lives by the injection of the performer’s subjectivity into the score, but nobody with a remnant of intelligence would doubt the importance and the authority of the score above any interpretation. Otherwise, who would care about scores anyway?

      For some people, the distinction between a text (be it a literal text or a musical text) and its interpretation is entirely clouded, with the result that ‘interpretation’ ends-up as a personal arrangement of the original.

      In art music, a performance tradition where ways of interpretation are handed-down from generation to generation, is of crucial importance to understand the scores of the repertoire. Although performance traditions develop, change, and are vulnerable to abuse, it also offers the possibility of understanding the nature of the score and placing it within the right interpretative framework.

      Once I had the unusual experience of sending in a score of a new orchestral work to the conductor without having the opportunity to discuss it with him, or attending the rehearsels. Yet, the result was an excellent understanding of the music and an entirely satisfying performance, as could be concluded from a live recording. This was only possible because of both composer and performer working in a tradition. It demonstrates the importance of tradition, be it in writing or performing music – not as a prescriptive body of rules, but as a perceptive framework of understanding, which leaves enough room for personal interpretation. It is something which unites Prokofiev with Mahler, or Britten with Mendelssohn.

      We know of the remarkable story of Brahms who received a string quartet who played one of his quartets for him, asking for his comments. Brahms said: ‘Excellent, that is beautiful, keep it that way. Last week there was here another quartet, who happened to play the same piece for me, and they did it totally differently, but also very beautifully.’ I think, that says enough – Brahms’ scores are meticullously prepared blue prints of carefully thought-out music where only the important clues are fixed.

    • John Sorel says:

      Didn’t the pianist and composer Beethoven once accept a challenge in pianism from the pianist Steibelt? Steibelt was beaten hollow, and found it necessary to leave Vienna forever. There is a moral there for someone, isn’t there?

      When did we last here any of Steibelt’s piano works? Yes, exactly.

  • Roger says:

    I have met this pianist on one occasion and also heard him perform a Beethoven Concerto. I was not imprssed, neither with the man, nor with his playing. I was struck by a pretentious arrogance and a complex of superiority (read complex of inferiority) and found his interpretation mannered, laboured and downright boring. The other musician that was with me found it to be thesame and actually felt repulsed by the persona of Mr. Levitt. Mr. Levitt would be wise to take a step back, learn modesty (a true sign of greatness) and not talk down to others nor play down to them. His career may move horizontally from here on, but I would have serious reservations that it would make any meteoric rise. Truth always prevails and people are genuerally not fooled as easily as one might think.

    • esfir ross says:

      Dear Roger! You put in writing exactly my impression from live performances of Igor Levitt. He used the most difficult pieces to agrandise his ego. Good marketing strategy by exploiting Bach, Beethoven. Gain for him-not for music. His stage manners’re of narcicist, same piano style. His playing and personality turn me off.

  • Vladimir Adolfovich P. says:

    Bravo, NL! Elegant! You were able to handily distort Levit’s thought just by changing one pronoun in the translation. What he did say in the interview was: Was wären die Komponisten ohne uns. ”What would the composers be without us”, that is, us as in: us the listeners, and us as in: us the players. This thought (of music being dependent on all three: listeners, composers, and players) is spelled out by Levit in the previous paragraph of the interview, and that idea has been previously articulated, in different words and many times over, by others: Richard Taruskin, Harnoncourt, Busoni, Liszt – to name a few. But of course, digging deeper or conveying accurate information never was in your interests, NL. Causing ruckus was.

  • Ludwig's Van says:

    Where would the composer be without Igor Levit? He would be in the hands of a more humble, responsible artist.

  • M McAlpine says:

    Fortunately I do not understand German so do not have to read the pretentious claptrap

  • sycorax says:

    Sometimes a bit of humbleness just makes the difference between a great and a mediocre man.

  • Fliszt says:

    The great composers did just fine before Igor Levit, and will continue to thrive long after him.

  • Nijinsky says:

    I really get the impression Igor Levit is trying to make a statement about people that say they are a servant to the music and then play like they would be damned if they don’t come up with a pious performance lacking in the personal intimate warmth that would allow the music to speak. I also see his statement, which seems to be quite taken out of context, as referring to a dedication to the composer, rather than making out the composer is dependent and should be subservient.

    In his interview he states clearly:

    The mission is: Let it be, let it sound, fill it with life.

    If he would just do that, to me it still sounds a trifle objective and pious.

    Here are two paragraphs translated from his interview.

    “What role does the personality of the composer play in your interpretation?

    Personality matters, but you really have to be careful not to project anything into that music. In dealing with the musical text you often get to points where you think: I would like to ask him now. But I can not ask Beethoven. I have to find my own answers. And that applies to all composers. Conversely, it is so – it is often overlooked – that Beethoven would not exist without us, who are sitting in the room, living and listening. Everything we have about Beethoven is a commission – in the form of a sheet of paper with notes on it. The mission is: Let it be, let it sound, fill it with life. This is not possible without interpreters and listeners. I am reluctant to make yourself and the role of the recipient smaller than she is. Of course, I read a lot about what was – at that time, at Beethoven’s time; but I also deal with what is today.

    So you are opposed to the widespread ideal according to which the interpreter is primarily the servant of the musical text?

    I do not feel like a servant, not even a master of anyone. For me the question is not: what would we be without the composers, but: What would the composers be without us? The interpretation is my personal response to the information provided to me by the score text. But sometimes this information is so full of uncertainties that I have to deal with them first. An implementation never simply works one to one. Beethoven adds that in many places he tries to break out of the musical framework (not only) of his time in order to penetrate into something new and different.”

    The whole interview is here

    I thought it was music itself that’s there to serve humanity. Same as air, water or the rest of the elements (which thought might be allowed to be one, if the arts were honored). But then now adays air seems to be there to spew pollution into, as is water etc.

    Music is there to serve humanity, but that takes a bit of humility to allow it, rather than following the ego’s manipulations. The one is real, the other isn’t.

    If music was just allowed to serve humanity, rather than fear and coercion being made out to be some magic, than one might have a different relationship with life, but then when you take that away you get what’s left, and the reaction then (even from professional musicians often) is to say that what’s missing wouldn’t fix it. Added to that criticizing those who to see what’s missing.

    It’s quite amazing to me. Someone who would spend hours in a library with his laptop editing CDs they put on on a adhoc lable, someone who’s political bend I didn’t completely subscribe to as adherent although I was mostly in agreement, then says to me out of nowhere: “and music isn’t helping anyone.” I simply responded with: “I can tell you’re professional,” where upon even he had to laugh. I didn’t even ask him why he spent so much time doing what he said wouldn’t help anyone, or why he was sure what the new trend needed to be in what didn’t help anyone etc…

  • Anon says:

    Of course, scores are not absolute, and there are many possible interpretations of any given piece. Still, some interpretations sound much more right than others.

  • fflambeau says:

    From many of the comments below (mostly by people who do not understand that all performances are interpretations and that the score is not a “Bible”) here is some background on the distinctions of Levit as a pianist (from Wikipedia):

    “Levit has appeared in major concert halls and music festivals around the world. During his studies he won several international awards, including second prize at the International Maria Callas Grand Prix, Athens (2004), first prize at the 9th Hamamatsu International Piano Academy Competition in Hamamatsu (2004),[2] the second prize at the piano competition Kissinger Klavierolymp (2004),[3] the silver medal and three other awards at the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel Aviv (2005), and the Luitpold Prize for young artists at the Festival Kissinger Sommer in Bad Kissingen (2009). In October 2011 he appeared in a 45-minute documentary aired on 3sat about his love for the music of Franz Liszt. He was a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist from 2011 to 2013. He received the Beethoven Ring in 2017. And in 2018 he received the Gilmore Artist Award which is awarded every four years to a concert pianist. (Nominees for the Gilmore Award are not aware that they are under consideration, but are assessed over time through live performances and recordings.) [4][5]

    …His second Sony album, a recording of Johann Sebastian Bach’s six keyboard partitas, was named Gramophone Magazine’s recording of the month for October 2014.”

  • Ruben Greenberg says:

    Arthur Schnabel always said that he liked to interpret music that was superior to any possible interpretation of it: any interpretation could only fall short of its greatness.

    • John Borstlap says:

      He also explained that great music is better than it can be played, meaning that any great piece of music has too many different aspects to bring them all out in performance at the same time. So, also good performances highlight some aspects of the music and all good performances together form the total of the meaning of the piece.

      • John Borstlap says:

        On reflection, I think that such margins are, in fact, quite small. Would there really be more than 2 or 3 different ways to play a Mozart symphony, or playing Debussy’s La Mer? Wouldn’t there exist only one way to best play Brahms’ second piano concerto (which is often played much too heavily)? And then: with his string quartets, maybe Brahms simply was insecure? We know that he was, in general. Magee took as an example the Brahms symphonies as played by Toscanini (deeply disturbing) and Walter (deeply consoling), aspects which are mutually exclusive. Would they both really be part of the music as meant by the composer? And then, how could a misunderstanding in performance both diminish or improve a piece?

  • Christopher from London says:

    A life without Beethoven and Mozart would be inconceivable for me. A life without Igor Levit – who cares?

  • Esther Cavett says:

    Isn’t this the pianist who did an unexpected encore at last year’s First NIght of the Proms – Ode to Joy transcribed by Liszt ? It was his welcome comment on the Brexit shambles