Q&A : Igor Levit didn't mind playing online when he couldn't play live
The Berlin pianist doesn't know what Beethoven was feeling when he wrote his masterpieces. He's seen as one of our era's best pianists and is friends with some – but not all – politicians.
BerlinIgor Levit is just 33 but already a classical music star. Framed by the 250th birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven, 2020 was supposed to be a banner year for him.
But then the virus hit and instead of appearing in the world's greatest concert halls with the world's greatest orchestras in Rome, London and New York, he spent the pandemic at the grand piano in his Mitte apartment, playing into a cellphone camera.
But his 52 concerts – streamed via Twitter – helped tens of thousands every evening to stomach the loneliness and isolation. His own as well.
He has recently resumed playing in front of live audiences, albeit smaller. He is playing all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas in Berlin's legendary Philharmonie, under strict hygiene conditions and spread over eight evenings. We met Igor Levit at a playground near his apartment.
Berliner Zeitung: Mr. Levit, we heard you last Sunday in the Philharmonie. In the second and last movement of Beethoven's Sonata No. 24, you slipped two final chords. We probably wouldn't have noticed but you admitted it on stage. At the end of the concert, you played the two chords again, correctly. What would your mother have said? She was your first teacher.
Igor Levit: She would've laughed her head off. That's life.
Repetitions like that are common in rock – Let's try it again!
Yeah, I screwed that one up. To end on a brutally wrong octave, you first have to get it right. I don't know why that happened. But I am totally open and transparent. That works because I see the stage as my place of freedom. Nothing can happen to me on stage. On stage I am safe. That's why I don't have a problem communicating openly about what just happened to me.
Does the classical music business lack a good error culture?
There is a bad culture of mistakes, which is cultivated externally. You can ask people as often as you want to turn off cellphones, but someone will still have one on. There are people who wait for mistakes, who wait for squeaks, who wait for messed up chords, and then it ends up on YouTube faster than you can blink. I can't think of many colleagues who approach music with the attitude, "The main thing is not to make any mistakes". Anyone who does that doesn't understand the job.
The connection between you and your mother is very deep. You once said you can tell when she is in the concert hall.
But it's not just with her where I can tell. I am very affectionate with people. I simply play differently. I feel differently when I know that somewhere there is someone I love or trust. That also gives me a bit of security and freedom. This is true for my mother, but also for a handful of other people.
Does playing in front of an audience or into a cellphone camera affect your performance?
You mean the house concerts during the lockdown? No, it makes no difference to me. I know there are people there, and they give me the most valuable thing they have - their time. And that's enough. I feel a very close proximity to these people. Of course, the smell is a completely different one in the hall. You hear the breathing. Of course it's different. But there are always real people. Who am I to say that listening offline is more valuable than online? A few colleagues made some incorrect statements during online time. They said: "Well, everything online sounds stupid, and how do I know if someone is sitting on the toilet while I'm playing?" I'd like to tell him, who do you think you are? People can sit on the toilet or wherever: They listen to you. Have a little humility.
Some musicians have found the standstill to be a pleasant break within a closely timed performance rhythm, which also overtaxes many artists. But you can only take a deep breath if you know that it will continue afterwards.
I can't take people seriously who are happy to finally have some free time in this situation. I'd like to ask them: "Why are you doing this work?" The fact is that many industries, including mine, have their backs to the wall. And it's completely out of our hands because nobody invented this pandemic. I find it outrageous to complain about the stupid classic business like this. The criticism of certain attitudes and actions of this industry is absolutely justified. But I would like it not to be formulated at a time when a virus from outside dictates standing still. I think that's fine. Countless artists are standing with their backs to the wall. It's horrible. And not just for artists. There are many people in the second and third row: agencies, management, technicians. Without these people, the industry wouldn't exist. There is nothing good about corona. This is the foundation where we can then talk about the other things. I find it difficult to speak of a positive side. And yet there really were also many wonderful things.
Pieces were given to you as gifts during this period, written by composers like Fred Hersh and Malakoff Kowalski. You now play the pieces as encores after the Beethoven sonatas...
I got works as gifts. I have above all been given an incredible warmth, and I have also given myself as a gift to a certain extent. Out of an inner necessity. I just wanted to give something with the house concerts. Later it turned out on very, very dark days, that I needed that as a support myself. To make music I need people who listen, otherwise I lack the sense in it.
I'm not a soul fascist. I don't want to have the authority to interpret your state of mind.
Did you also use the time to practice something that you otherwise would not have had time for?
No, I played through. I didn't have any special energy for that either. I rode my bike a lot during that time. For me, cycling is a kind of side stage, also a place of freedom. I have a complete vehicle fleet at home. One room is full of bicycles. Road bikes, mountain bikes.
Do you wear lycra?
No way. I'm way too vain for that.
With or without a helmet?
With a helmet!
Do you race through the forest?
Yes, downhill too. It's so great. I rode my bike two and a half hours every day during lockdown time. I played, I cooked, I always saw one or two friends.
And you bought yourself a TV.
And I'm still ashamed of it, even now. It's just standing around. If you need it, I'll bring it down.
Let's talk about your work. You say you use music to tell stories about your inner state. In the first concert of Beethoven's sonatas, people laughed again and again, softly. How do you bring out this humour, this lightness?
I can't answer that. When I speak of states, I can only describe mine. I'm not a soul fascist.
What's a soul fascist?
I don't want to have the authority to interpret your state of mind. I won't tell you what to feel. I'm not saying that the piece is based on the composer's processing of XY's death. That may be, but you might also feel something completely different. I think this militant idea of explaining to someone from the outside what he has to hear is deeply unmusical. I can't credibly tell about anything other than myself.
So it's not about Beethoven's inner state?
I have information in the notes. I try to understand it. I try to fulfill what's written there – to the best of my knowledge and belief, as they say in Berlin. But it's just me trying to do it right. I don't know what Beethoven sounded like. I can only be credible when I talk about myself and put my own inner state into it. And that state was different yesterday than it is today and will be tomorrow.
Is a certain amount of life experience necessary to flow into the music?
That's almost too unnatural for me. Life experience flows into it anyway. I just change. I've changed 15 times in the last 10 years. From the ground up. I have the feeling that I no longer have anything to do with the person I was in college. So, of course my life experience flows in. How could it not flow in? I just had a wonderful summer in Salzburg. Of course that shapes me.
I think about all kinds of things while playing
Can you learn something about life from Beethoven?
One suggestion: Freedom?
This is really just semantics. I don't know if I like the term "freedom". "Liberation", yes. As a process. An inner liberation, that can be learned. Liberation as a process is also something very musical. Crescendo: Become louder. Decrescendo: Become quieter, always with an emphasis on "becoming". Beethoven's process of inner liberation from sonata to sonata is striking. At some point he is completely boundless and boundless. I think of the Hammerklavier Sonata. It's unbelievable what sort of inner liberation process took place there.
You're not playing the Beethoven sonatas in chronological order. Why not? In the second concert almost all the sonatas were dedicated to women. Were they about unfulfilled wishes, unhappy relationships?
I hereby promise that yesterday, for once, I did not think about women. (Laughs) Sometimes I think about them while playing. I think about all kinds of things while playing. I would go crazy if I thought about the movement of my fingers while playing. I can't do that. It just has to fit. I need space for something other than thinking about what the hand is about to do.
You started playing the piano when you were three years old. Your grandmother sent a cassette with recordings of you to a piano professor. Now you're a professor at the Music College in Hanover. Can you still watch all the videos of children playing the piano?
Yes, that has increased. I listen to them all.
How can you tell if someone is highly talented?
I don't want to answer with counter questions like in old Jewish jokes. But how do you recognise people who like you? I don't know. Some time ago I received a video of a boy playing a Beethoven sonata. I listened to it. It wasn't very interesting, but then, in the second movement, there were three bars, and they were great. That was completely unintentional, he didn't notice it himself. Something like that is enough for me. That's when I know there is talent. If this moment doesn't exist, I can't help anyone. I now have four students, and in the fall I'll have two more. I can't see one of them, he's stuck in China because he can't get a visa
Do you like teaching?
Very much. Unfortunately, I was a very bad student in school, but I really liked it there, as I later became a student at the conservatory.
The closeness that exists there between teachers and students is different from any other. It must be stressful sometimes.
That's true. There is also something akin to psychological abuse. But apart from that, creating a sense of cohesion is infinitely more complicated today than it was when I was a student. Because everything that surrounds us now, the internet, social media, is all about individuality and the search for identity. It's difficult to get away from the ego and into the 'we'. I don't envy anyone who starts studying today. When the smartphone came on the market, I was 20. I started to explore the possibilities of the internet when something had already settled in my mind. But those who go to university now have to be able to deal with both the positive sides, which I use, and the negative ones. A young person today has the whole world virtually in front of him all the time. That's total overload. I didn't have that. I had tape recorders. In the future, I will force my class to come together. Fixed dates where everyone comes together and plays, four-handed. Art needs a common place of inspiration.
You've become a star. Do the same old terms of adoration get on your nerves?
No, people who are close to me know that I don't act like that. I'm also bad at talking about my work – I just do it. By the way, my favourite phrase in the German cultural press is "He is considered to be". I have never read that so often in any other country. What does that mean, "... is considered to be"? Insanely boring.
Just the other day you were accused of "pure virtuosity", even in this newspaper. It wasn't meant as a complement. Do you want to respond?
Listen, if I weren't a virtuoso, then I would be an amateur. So no, na.
"No, na" is very Viennese and means something like "Sure, what do you think? "No, na" sounds like the Friedrich Gulda you admired.
There is a Viennese joke where an old man walks along a canal and sees a little boy playing. "You are so insanely sweet. What is your name?" - "Moses." - "Oh, such a beautiful name. I wonder what mom and dad will call you – Moischele?" - "Sure, what do you think, 'Moischele!' They can call me Rubinstein." If you need terms, okay. If I weren't a virtuoso, I couldn't play that stuff. I'd be an amateur. If I were to define myself only by my basic musical feelings and couldn't play that, I'd be an amateur.
The AfD can kiss my ass.
Let's talk about your relationship to politics and politicians. You played a house concert in Bellevue Palace, the official residence of the German President. You seemed a bit defensive. Are you intimidated by powerful spaces?
I was very happy to be there. I like this president. He's an incredibly important fighter for democracy and cohesion in this time and – above all – an absolute jazz freak. I think we have been lucky with our presidents. I still have a very warm connection to Christian Wulff from Hanover. The house concert in Bellevue was in the very first lockdown phase. It was the first time I dressed in anything other than those stupid brown slippers and sweatpants in those first 14 days. Of course it was a great honour to play there. But it had nothing to do with the powerful space. I have relationships with a handful of politicians that have become friendships over the years. These are friendly connections where we share ideas.
Do you meet politicians from different parties?
Anyone from the AfD?
No. They can kiss my ass.
Why is Beethoven actually so often appropriated? For the EU anthem, as the soundtrack to Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. The Nazis liked Beethoven. And Barenboim once said: "Every note in Beethoven's works is part of a humanistic message." How does all that fit together?
Daniel Barenboim's entire oeuvre, the sounds he produces, from within himself, as the person he is, with his history and his actions – these sounds live Daniel Barenboim's humanism. It is not Schubert or Beethoven who tell him what to do. They no longer exist. They're dead. They have left a mission. And when Daniel Barenboim conducts a Beethoven symphony, his conducting is characterised by the humanism that Daniel Barenboim lives. I would say: every note in Beethoven's works, played by Daniel Barenboim and some others, is part of a humanistic message. Every note of Beethoven played in the Elbphilharmonie [in Hamburg] during the G20 summit, before Erdogan, Trump and everyone, was part of a political travesty. Every note of Beethoven played at the Führer's birthday was part of a political travesty. Beethoven can't defend himself against anything. He's not here. I can only put him in context. Music is completely at the mercy of the context that living people give it.
What about Richard Wagner?
Richard Wagner's Ring, conducted by Pierre Boulez, staged by Patrice Chereau, is part of a humanistic message. Franz Liszt's Les Préludes was the entrance to the Nazi newsreel, but it can also be part of a humanistic message, depending on where and by whom it is performed. Incidentally, we don't need to think back so far. I can think of two pieces: Schubert's Ave Maria. And the most famous song about love and sex of all time – Halleluja by Leonhard Cohen. Both pieces were part of the Republican National Convention for Donald Trump a few days ago. Again: a travesty.
At the moment, the AfD is trying to prevent the production of a film production about how Beethoven might have had a black ancestor. Have you heard about this?
No. But they should go to hell, and I certainly don't envy the devil. Someone just wrote on Twitter: "We not only have Nazis and rightwing extremists storming the steps of the Reichstag from the outside, we have Nazis and rightwing extremists in the Reichstag."
Does what happened last Saturday [28 August] in front of the Reichstag frighten you?
What happened last week in front of the Reichstag is embarrassing. Monstrously embarrassing and shameful for this country. Linguistic, intellectual, political and active hatred, resentment and division have been stirred up in this country by parts of politics and rightwing media for years. Online and offline. Why are we surprised? It is neither a surprise nor a shock.