Variations on steroids…

Igor Levit has created quite a stir in the piano world by recording serious, heavy-hitting repertoire for his first two Sony releases. He made a stunning debut with Beethoven’s last five sonatas, and followed up with excellent (albeit not extraordinary) readings of Bach’s Six Partitas. His third release, however, takes the cake for sheer ambition. Not content with coupling Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations as the late Daniel Varsano did for this label 30-odd years ago, Levit adds another comparably large-scale variation set to the mix, namely Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated, which has become more and more of a repertoire staple since it was composed in late 1975.

Many young artists would be proud to claim the sensitive, polished, and inherently musical pianism distinguishing Levit’s Goldbergs. The fluency and ease with which Levit navigates his briskly paced, virtuosic, cross-handed variations prevents them from sounding driven or pushed, while the lyrical No. 13 and three minor-key variations are eloquently understated. Yet comparative listening shows that Levit’s relatively restricted range of dynamics and articulations yield to Murray Perahia’s sophisticated voice leading and more varied and pinpointed execution all around.

Furthermore, Levit does not unify the variations into perceptible architectural or emotional arcs, in comparison with more personalized and inflected versions from Alexandre Tharaud and Lori Sims. Even Simone Dinnerstein’s less consistent traversal operates at a higher level of engagement. In fairness, Levit’s live New York performances in December 2015 revealed his interpretation to have ripened and blossomed in detail.