Igor Levit gets seriously vexed

Igor Levit gets seriously vexed


norman lebrecht

May 28, 2020

The German-based pianist just keeps catching the attention.

Press release:

To raise awareness for the plight of artists worldwide amidst the coronavirus pandemic, pianist and 2018 Gilmore Artist Igor Levit gives a 20-hour, live-streamed, marathon performance transcending geographical borders and time zones. On Saturday, May 30 at 8:00 am ET, from the b-sharp Studio in Berlin, he performs one of music history’s longest compositions, Erik Satie’s Vexations, which lasts approximately 20 hours. To support this project, Mr. Levit draws upon the $300,000 awarded to him two years ago as a Gilmore Artist.

The Gilmore presents the livestream via YouTube at youtu.be/zqQS_HTunCY (for the event page, visit thegilmore.org/streaming/igor-levit-vexations). The performance may also be accessed through streaming partners The New Yorker (newyorker.com) and Der Spiegel (click here) and will be shared by Mr. Levit himself on Twitter (@igorpianist).


  • Olassus says:

    Hype-hungry artist swallows Satie’s practical joke.

    • Esther Cavett says:

      This is a silly piece for giggling undergrads. He should perform something more serious

    • RW2013 says:

      I’ve experienced this “joke” before with a team of pianists playing in different rooms of a theatre.
      If it has to be long, I’d rather hear him play Sorabji’s Opus or Kahn’s Tagebuch in Tönen.

  • Harold Clarkson says:

    It is definitely time we heard more of Sorabji… a seriously underestimated and neglected composer..

    • John Borstlap says:

      But Sorabji wanted that himself, prohibitting performances, recordings, etc.

      • Quire says:

        He forbade them for four decades (roughly from 1936 to 1976), eventually changing his mind and giving Yonty Solomon and Michael Habermann (soon followed by other musicians) permission to publically perform his works.

        • John Borstlap says:

          I did not know that…. I think the idea of trying to prevent performance of your own work is crazy.

      • Pianofortissimo says:

        He was surely frustrated that nobody cared about it.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Probably that is true. But his works have serious problems, apart from any artistic qualities: too long, too complex where the musical idea does not appear to ask for it, everything overdone. It is always striking that the best music is somehow also clear and simple and natural, even if it is complex.

  • John Borstlap says:

    It reads a bit as if the $ 300.000,– is best spent upon 20 hours of ideological boredom:


    (Ideological because many avantgardists in the sixties of the last century saw Satie’s joke as a serious protest against classical music’s pretentions.)

    Why would mr Levit choose, among all the available possibilities, for this crazy thing? To express the general mood under lockdowns? To comment upon classical music’s immediate future? To wear down politicians so that they will be more willing to pay for the musical institutions?

    The gesture, especially in these times, invokes serious doubts as to the pianist’s intelligence.

  • The View form America says:

    Here’s the missing headline for the press release:

    “Self-important keyboard artist to jump the shark on May 30th — gawkers welcome.”

  • steven holloway says:

    The three comments posted thus far are plainly not enthusiastic about Vexations. However, many pianists have played it over the years, not a few more recently, starting notably with John Cage. Cage’s interest in it should tip people off to its significance. He regarded Satie as his closest predecessor, and I am reasonably sure that he was one of the many — very many — who regard the work as an expression of Zen. Vexations should also be of significance for those who have interest in the music of Schoenberg, Webern, et al. But those who would care to untie a knotty work must be prepared to invest at least twenty hours of reading and thought. Tangentially, I see no reason to label Levit “hype-hungry”. He is simply something of an activist unafraid to make his views known. That insult could have been thrown at Casals and Toscanini, among others.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Would this comment come from a music lover, I wonder. To call ‘Vexations’ a ‘knotty work’ which has to be ‘untied’, means missing the point entirely: there is no work in the world that is easier to understand, because there is nothing to understand. It was a joke, like Satie’s ‘Trois Morceaux en Forme de Poire’, and so many other minor piano pieces he wrote. (The Pear pieces were inspired by a remark of his friend Debussy, who advised him to take more care as to the forms of his music.)

      And then, a ‘recommendation’ by John Cage who was another joker, can hardly count as an invitation for attention. The kind of jokes both Satie and Cage wrote (‘wrote’ in the case of Cage), have nothing to do with Zen, which is a form of meditation which wants to cut out the ever-busy presence of intellectual thought (and for that reason, quite difficult). The processes in Zen are, like those of the I Ching, related to spiritual processes which could not be farther from the doings of Satie and Cage.

      The only work by Satie to be taken seriously, after the well-known Gymnopedies, is his oratorio ‘Socrate’, which is beautiful. The rest is crazy nonsense and jokes, born from frustration and powerlessness.

      • Charles Clark-Maxwell says:

        ==crazy nonsense and jokes, born from frustration and powerlessness.

        Yes, well said

        • John Borstlap says:

          I always feel sympathy for Satie, because he was a genuine talent, trying to give the restricted natural invention he had, a meaning in its restriction, and sometimes he succeeds. But imagine, he was a close friend of Debussy, observing the gestation of all those master works: Faun Prelude, Nocturnes, Pelléas, La Mer, attending the premières, seeing the furore around the music, visiting Debussy weekly and having lunch together, being fond of him and of his lunches, using Debussy’s piano when he needed it, – such contact must be very difficult for a less talented composer, living in eternal poverty and ignorance.

          After the premiere of Pelléas that Satie attended, he said: ‘I must search for something else or I am lost.’ He must have felt cornered by the presence of Debussy and still not able to take distance.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    20 hours… Pee pauses? Coffee breaks? … ?

    • John Borstlap says:

      The publisher (Durand & Co) has thought about the pressures of human release and a hose and plastic bottle are delivered together with the score. For coffee or tea, the performer has to organise hose and bottle himself.

      There have been complaints at the publisher by SEF (Société Emancipatoire Féminine) that Vexations can only be performed in its entirity by men, and they insist on a ‘cut version’ to allow for female vexed expression.

    • Cyril says:

      Maybe he’ll be wearing a diaper. Or a urinary catheter.

    • Brettermeier says:

      “20 hours… Pee pauses? Coffee breaks? … ?”

      You don’t need pee breaks if you don’t take coffee breaks.

      And there’s always the glider pilot way.

  • Nick says:

    Untiring self-promoter!! Really pathetic!