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Recording of the Week, Igor Levit's Tristan

When I heard rumours that Igor Levit’s next recording would centre on a Wagner opera, I assumed that the intrepid, ever-imaginative pianist was planning to make good on a bonkers, brilliant promise made in deepest lockdown – after the effusive response to his performance of ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ in one of his enormously popular ‘house concerts’, Levit pledged to single-handedly tackle Die Walküre in its entirety should his Twitter account amass 150, 000 followers, and given he hit his target some time ago I figured he’d decided to put his money where his mouth is…

But it’s Tristan und Isolde that constitutes the lodestar of this latest project, which includes music by Liszt, Mahler via Ronald Stevenson and Hans Werner Henze as well as Wagner himself (via Zoltán Kocsis). Like Levit’s previous concept-albums (though the term almost seems too glib to describe programmes which are curated with such intelligence and idiosyncrasy), Tristan explores weighty themes: love, death, and redemption, and does so with the same balance of heart and head which characterised those earlier albums Life and Encounter.

Igor LevitWe’re eased in relatively gently with a glowing but unsentimentalised account of Liszt’s evergreen Liebestraum No. 3, where the flowing tempo and cantabile line remind us of the work’s vocal roots – it’s a neat idea to have the original song-text (a short, touching meditation on love and mortality by Ferdinand Freiligrath) front-and-centre in the booklet, though the way Levit dwells on certain harmonies makes the kinship with the Liebestod from Tristan register so clearly that one scarcely needs the words on the page as signpost. (Liszt published the set of piano pieces less than a decade before his son-in-law’s opera was completed, though it would be several more years before Tristan made it to the stage).

Levit then segues with disconcerting seamlessness into far more esoteric territory, namely Henze’s set of ‘Preludes for piano, electronic tapes and orchestra’ Tristan (premiered in 1974), in which the German composer wrestles with his own deeply conflicted relationship with Wagner’s legacy over the course of nearly an hour. Beginning with ghostly echoes of the Act One Prelude to the opera, it also references Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 (the opening motif emerging briefly in a flash of startling clarity in the extraordinary fourth movement ‘Tristan’s Folly’) and Chopin’s Funeral March, with whispers of quasi-Mahlerian scherzos, cabaret and electronic birdsong along the way.

By the time the stark string motif which ushers in Tristan’s deathbed agonies enters the picture in the final movement and a child’s voice eerily intones a passage from an English-language version of the medieval Tristan legend, you may well find yourself as baffled as you are beguiled – this is a piece which requires multiple hearings before it begins to yield its secrets, but both Levit and the radiant Gewandhausorchester under Franz Welser-Möst prove the most clear-eyed of guides, ensuring that Henze’s many and varied ideas (not to mention the listeners themselves) have the requisite space to breathe.

It's not until the beginning of the second disc that we finally hear Wagner’s Prelude unadulterated (or very nearly so, in Kocsis’s faithful transcription): some listeners may opt to prepare themselves for the Henze by playing this first, but experiencing it after hearing fragments ‘through a glass darkly’ will likely make even the most well-versed Wagnerian view this music in a new light. Once again, Levit’s ability to sustain long lines (without over-reliance on the pedal) is a marvel, as is the near-orchestral weight he summons when the music requires it: after hearing him perform this live at his album-launch in Berlin last week, I’d happily have remained in my seat for another three hours had he been minded to complete the opera…

I’m rather more on the fence about the transcription of the Adagio from Mahler’s Symphony No. 10 which follows, despite the deftness of Ronald Stevenson’s arrangement and Levit’s performance - the effect is rather akin to viewing a pencil-sketch of an Old Master, and for me it was impossible not to miss the orchestral colours. But Liszt’s Harmonies du Soir, given with a radiance which matches that of the opening Liebestraum, brings this challenging, enthralling programme to a suitably transcendent close.

Igor Levit (piano), Gewandhausorchester, Franz Welser-Möst

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Igor Levit (piano), Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Franz Welser-Möst

Available Format: 3 Vinyl Records