Igor Levit on 60 Minutes: ‘I was high as a monkey’

Igor Levit on 60 Minutes: ‘I was high as a monkey’


norman lebrecht

January 04, 2021

He always has a quirky turn of phrase:



  • J. says:

    One more time, then.

    This is the article everyone should read about Igor PogorLevit: https://van-us.atavist.com/winner-takes-all

    • Rogerio says:

      From the article mentioned above;
      “Journalists ask his opinion on climate change, the rise of the far right, books, the ideal body weight.”
      If there is one thing worse than “fake news” it is “real advice on climate change from a genius-pianist, high on himself”.

    • Y2K says:

      Traditionalists hate him because his Beethoven is so different. If one has listened to Beethoven one particular way for 40 years, I can see why Levit may sound grating. I think they are genius esp his Hammerklavier and late Beethoven. His tempi are too brisk to many but to me they are entirely convincing and very refreshing. To each his or her own.

    • John Borstlap says:

      “What would the composers be without us?”

      Clearly this man is a member of the species of classical music parasites. He thinks that a piece is 50% composer and 50% ‘me’. With such performers, classical music doesn’t need a covid pandemic to sink.

      Such people really should do something very different, something on their populist level where they would be better at home: fake journalism, incompetent music criticism on a tabloid, ignorant twitter specialist, whatever – but not music.

      • Concertgoer says:


      • buxtehude says:


        John I don’t think you are being reasonable.

        Some percentage of the sound & effect of any score, especially one centuries old, is going to be Me, as in Performer, even if only as the re-imagining of the composer’s mind. It’s your “parasite” who can bring the saved evidence of some long-ago performance into the present day, and the bigger the personality the better (sometimes!) the effect.

        It’s the difference between a play or a score, on the one hand, and a novel or pop music recording on the other, which remain static.

        You don’t agree? Take just a glance at the accumulation of great recordings of classical music, and the differences between them.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Yes, of course.

          But that is something different from the mindset of this kind of parasite.

          The relationship between the original idea of the composer, the score, and the performer is a complex one. The ideal performer has a big ego which he/she ‘uses’ to bring the score to life, with the motivation of recreating an imagined idea that the composer probably must have had. It is utterly subjective but it can only work if the performer sees his/her role as entirely subservient, in the way a lover dedicates him/herself to the wellbeing of the beloved. It is a psychic / emotional total investment of dedication, and a performer who thinks it’s 50% ME, misses the point entirely. He/she should think: it’s 100% the composer and it’s 100% me who will try to bring that about. These are two very different layers of awareness.

          In my own experience the latter type are really the best, with all their hughe ego they are, in the same time, extremely modest in relation to the score. They have something that types like Mr Levit clearly lack: respect for the work of art. I never had any trouble with such true performers, but always ended-up in a quarrel with the parasites.

      • William Safford says:

        Which would you rather hear: one of your piano compositions performed by a professional living pianist, or a MIDI realization?

        • John Borstlap says:

          I always prefer midi versions of classical music, because then you get rid of all the pathos things that’s merely distracting from what you are doing while listening.


      • John Humphreys says:

        Clearly you are well acquainted with his playing. Been to any of his live concerts Mr Bortslap or merely parroting the street cry? Chapter and verse please – such sweeping (and miserly) criticism from armchair critics cannot go unchecked. Perhaps you might give us an example of how it should be ‘done’?

    • John humphreys says:

      Poland had a fine Prime Minister in Ignaz Paderewski (who happened also to be quite a good pianist).

  • Bloom says:

    He seems to be something between a genius rogue and a roguish genius. High as a monkey halfway in-between.

  • Y2K says:

    Fabulous. He’s one of the great geniuses we have. For example, to breathe new life into the Beethoven sonatas is quite a feat. His Hammerklavier is one of the greatest things I’ve ever heard.

    • anon. says:

      His Hammerklavier streamed from Salzburg Festival is one of the greatest train wrecks I’ve heard. It was very memorable. I couldn’t believe that is the standard of that famed festival nowadays. I guess if you regard it as an instance of performance art conceived by Igor Levit instead of a performance of Beethoven’s music in good faith, it is quite genius in a certain way? His limited technique only allows for a crude approximation of the piece. But I suppose he could always claim crudeness was exactly what he intended.

      • Y2K says:

        I completely disagree. It was not train wreck. His Hammerklavier tempi are the briskest compared to anything that has come before but are far more accurate to the original Beethoven markings and closer to the Liszt original performance. That’s how fast the Hammerklavier is supposed to be played and I certainly didn’t know this until Levit did. I don’t want to get into an academic discussion on the proper tempo for the Hammerklavier but it is extremely hard to pull off. I love his Sony recording of the Hammerklavier but I like Salzburg live take, with all of the imperfections of a live performance of a fiendishly difficult work, even more. Why? Given me a passionate account with some awkward phrases here and there over the same boring take that’s been given over the last 100 years. His studio and live Hammerklavier stand above all of the things I’ve listened to over the last 5 years.

        • anon. says:

          I didn’t have a problem with his tempi at all. I had a problem with his inability to play his chosen tempi. Apart from the many missed and wrong notes which were bordering on unacceptable, he didn’t have the technique to control the phrasing, or to play the many accents and differentiate the articulations as noted on the score at that speed. If historically “correct” tempi is your primary concern above all else, then why not listen to a computer playback of the score on some notation software at your desired tempi? At least there would be no wrong notes.

          • Y2K says:

            We will agree to disagree. I love his live performance with all the faults because he takes risks that others are unwilling to take. Beethoven has been played very well for generations by many fine pianists but Levit comes along and give his take of them. Many hate it because it’s so different. I think it is genius.

          • Thomas Dawkins says:

            You’ve convinced me; I’ve ordered a copy of the boxed set. I always say that I would much rather disagree with a performer’s choices than not have any choices that merit agreement or disagreement.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Beethoven, clumsy as he was in practical matters, obviously red the metronome numbers in the wrong way, at the bottom of the little block instead of the top. So, for instance, if he wanted a tempo of 120, based upon the tempo of the swaying pendulum, he read 160 or something which is at the bottom of the block, and writing down 160 thinking this is what he wanted. Other people reading the number at the top of the block, get a much faster tempo as a result. After all, the metronome was a brand new invention at the time and the composer was practically deaf. Tempo indications are not to be trusted with B. We know that for him, phrasing and articulation was as important as tempo, and in a much too fast tempo, a lot of phrasing and articulation no longer work, or can no longer be executed, or only very badly.

    • Joseph says:

      Try Gilels.

      • John Humphreys says:

        I’ve lived with Gilels’ mighty performance of Op.106 (and much else) all my life. But his is a ‘Hammerklavier’ for those who are risk averse. Noble for sure…

    • John Humphreys says:

      He is astonishing. He takes Beethoven’s metronome marks (such as they are) at face value. Not since Artur Schnabel has the ‘Hammerklavier’ emerged with such coruscating brilliance and ferocity…and with an accuracy which defies belief. What more do the dissenters want – blood?

      • Pianofortissimo says:

        “Hammerklavier” sonata, first movement:

        Rudolph Buchbinder (“old” recording reissued on Warner): 10 min 33 sec.

        Rudolph Buchbinder (latest, live recording on Sony): 10 min 18 sec.

        Igor Levit (studio recording): 10 min 18 sec.

        … but the Winner is:
        Stephan Möller: 9 min 24 sec.

  • CYM says:

    Returning to Erik Satie ‘Vexation’, it’s quite a masterpiece, as half the piece is performed with the left hand alone, 840 times … which permits the performer to grab Cuban cigars, some caviar toasts, Belgian chocolate truffles or Cognac XO. (Works as well for left-handed pianists)
    A much better ‘high’ than Igor’s monkey ‘high’ !!!

    • John Borstlap says:

      I love Vexations. You can listen to it, go out and do your shopping, come back and it’s still there, like a good old friend you don’t have to entertain.


  • Karin Becker says:

    In May 2010, journalist E. Büning wrote about Igor Levit in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: “Six years ago I heard Igor Levit for the first time. There he was seventeen, a small, round man and incomprehensibly chatty. Interfered everywhere, told unfunny jokes, knew something to say on every subject. It was only when she was sitting on the wing and playing that this fat kid temporarily stopped talking.” Years later, she stylizes 23-year-old Levit as a “century pianist.” I follow Levit’s career and activities as a “Twitter king” and his outspoken statements. I have heard Levit three times in concerts and will not attend a concert any more. I don’t buy his CDs either. For me, Levit is a chatterer, unfortunately he doesn’t stop talking at the piano anymore.

    • John Humphreys says:

      I turned pages for him when he played Ronald Stevenson’s mighty ‘Passacaglia on DSCH’ at London’s Wigmore Hall and spent a wonderful half hour with him beforehand chatting about this, that. politics, art, philosophy. He was generous, thoughtful and entirely without any self-aggrandising. I should know – I was the recipient of his cultural beneficence..

    • john humphreys says:

      I’ve been to half a dozen or so recitals by Igor Levit. The evenings were devoted to music making of the highest order. Not a word said on stage except by way of introducing an encore. Presumably that is allowed in our hallowed halls?

  • Jeffrey Biegel says:

    You know, several years ago, the son of cartoonist, Charles M. Schulz, told me his father asked him in his later years, ‘Do you think they’ll remember me?’ It is quite a question from, perhaps, the world’s most recognized cartoonist and creator of ‘Peanuts’, ‘Snoopy’, ‘Charlie Brown’ etc. Of course he is remembered. But the notion that, once his physical existence ceased to exist, would his legacy stand the test of time? At almost 60, these thoughts pervade my psyche – especially during 2020, the year of Covid – and it’s not over yet. Yes, many of us go through stages of development, and, in our 30s, want to make a difference, perform in a different way to say, ‘hey, I have something else to say about this piece’. After this stage passes, we find ourselves in our 40s and 50s, and later in life, it isn’t enough of ‘what we have to say that is different’, but what are we truly leaving the physical world with that they will hopefully remember us by? As this new year begins, these are the very thoughts that trail every move I make, every performance – online (yes, I did many of those too, and may or may not be remembered for being the first one to create the classical video livestreams in 1997, but whatever), every piece I have composed, and new projects created and monies raised during the worst times of our century. Mr. Levit is in a wonderful period of his life, still exploring, developing, nurturing, growing, and he is slowly building the yellow brick road of his journey with the necessary steps to create the legacy, of what he will want people to remember him by. He is still young, so those thoughts are not perhaps in his blood yet. And many might think I am too young to think this way as well, but each person finds that turn of the road – a turn of life’s phrase – to discover that reality. I abstain from criticism of other artists and their performances. As my teacher, Adele Marcus, often said, we can’t trace the same steps that artist took to reach their interpretation. Jorge Bolet once said, loosely quoted, ‘I probably play Beethoven’s sonatas better than Beethoven because I lived with them for forty years. He did not.’ It will be interesting to see how history remembers us during the time of Covid, what we did, what was left behind and if it made/makes a difference.

    • buxtehude says:

      A touching confession.

      Brahms toward the end of his life seemed to believe that he would be forgotten after death, suddenly, 60-to-zero like Joseph Joachim Raff, buried especially by such steam-rollers as Wagner and the Second Viennese School and whatever it was that Bruckner stood for. These last and especially their troll followers were all hootin’ & hollerin’, masters of denunciation, far from taking Maestro Biegel’s advice.

      Their strategy for achieving attention and hegemony, like that of Godard and Truffaut who would appear later in Paris — and our own Donald Trump, come to think o it — was to cut down the forests surrounding them.

      • Jeffrey Biegel says:

        Thank you, Buxtehude. What is interesting is that, what we think we will be remembered for often is not what history holds us accountable for. Personally, I hope I may be remembered for carrying on the traditions of Josef Lhevinne and Artur Schnabel, from the roots of Beethoven to the pianism of the old Russian school. or the Bach and Mozart recordings. But will probably happen is that I will be remembered for Christmas music, new piano music, the first internet livestreams and commissioning new music. But that’s ok. As long as it isn’t anything terrible!!

      • John Borstlap says:

        Brahms became rather pessimistic later in life because of three things: 1) the spectacular successes of Wagner and opera in general, on the expense of pure symphonic writing; 2) after reading Schopenhauer’s ‘Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung’ which took away his faith (as reported by Dvorak); and 3) because of the rising antisemitism in Vienna which he found entirely incomprehensible.

        But lo and behold: his works became part of the fundament of the repertoire, weathering every storm.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      “Jorge Bolet once said, loosely quoted, ‘I probably play Beethoven’s sonatas better than Beethoven because I lived with them for forty years. He did not.’ ”
      It’s a great quote from Bolet (if accurate), and he’s got a very valid point.

    • John Borstlap says:

      With all due respect, but that Bolet quote is totally and utterly ridiculous. What a fool! There is quite a difference between inventing a piece and performing it. Again someone who misses the point entirely.

    • Sharon says:

      The problem is if in addition to wondering about one’s legacy one thinks at middle age–“I innovated in my thirties and have nothing more original to give. I will be nothing more than I am today. I am all washed up”. this is what is called mid life crisis.

      The real way to perpetuate one’s legacy is to leave something of importance to younger people through teaching either directly or by example

      • Jeffrey Biegel says:

        Absolutely agree with you. Although some admit to not being able to teach, those who do are part of the continuum, passing through the traditions, yet also with new music bringing their students to help evolve music in the present for the future. I always say to students, and to composers whom I am commissioning: “This is not about you. This is not about me. It’s about the music – past, present and future. We are here very briefly to be stewards of the art, and make sure it continues onward.”

      • John Borstlap says:

        For creative people, life lesson nr one is to have your midlife crisis in your twenties, so that you are free to develop afterwards as long as you live.

  • MacroV says:

    I thought the 60 Minutes profile was quite good, esp. since it was made for a non-classical-music audience. If you don’t like his “woke”-ness, well, that’s on you. Impressive that he got > 300,000 to stream his first house concert, in any case.

    • Y2K says:

      Yep. I don’t pay attention anything he does outside of piano playing. His activities outside of playing is a by-product of his generation. However, his playing is outstanding.

  • IP says:

    There is some space for a picture of whatever he ate today “gegen rechts”. Don’t be so shy…

  • Hilary says:

    He’s prepared to play unfashionable repertoire shinned by many high profile artists, and narrow minded agents/venues.

    For me, this suggests the portrayals of outright egotism are simplistic. At the end of the day we’re all a mixture of contradictions though you might be forgiven for thinking otherwise reading some of the stories on SD.

    I was ambivalent about the 60 minute Stevenson ‘ DSCH Passacaglia’ but glad Levit programmed the piece at Wigmore Hall.

  • Lily says:

    Growing up in a castle of Steinways, he isn’t my taste. But I would never say he shouldn’t be anyone’s taste. And if he attracts followers that wouldn’t otherwise indulge, I’m all for it! He obviously has a broad appeal…

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    I dare say that it is precisely because of his opinions on everything between heaven and earth that Igor Levit is such a famous pianist.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Ronald Stevenson’s monumental Passacaglia on DSCH ends in a colossal triple fugue on ubjects DSCH, BACH, and the Dies Irae. I agree about Stevenson’s own recordings of it and thionk he made two, one on Altarus. He asks the performer to improvise one variation or section of the passacaglia.

    Rachmaninoff lquotes the Dies Irae in many works, e.g. the Paganini Rhapsody and an etue-tableau entirely based on it. Shostakovich quotes a slightly transformed Dies irae to begin his 14th stymphony, so that he seems to be quoting Brahms/s E-flat minor Intermezzo, which also quotes it transformed in the same way.