Igor Levit has been enticing—and frustrating—U.S. audiences for some time. The twenty-something Russian-German pianist has been generating considerable buzz in Europe, where he mostly performs, but so far hasn’t spent much time in the U.S. His stateside recital debut was just last year, and this May, he was scheduled to come to town for a Washington Performing Arts solo show. But alas, he canceled due to some kind of illness, and the wunderkind remained an elusive figure for the D.C. classical crowd.
On Thursday, he finally made it over here, for a program with the National Symphony Orchestra that showed off his technical expertise but didn’t do much else. Not that it had to. Levit stuck to what he’s best known for, Beethoven, with the piano concerto he’s best known for, the Emperor. Levit’s debut album was of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, and his most recent one is of Beethoven’s variations on Bach’s Goldberg. So audiences got pretty much what they came to hear.
Levit isn’t a particularly demonstrative pianist, which is no mark against him. The overall impression his playing style leaves you with is one of intense concentration: He crouches myopically over the keyboard to the point that he’s almost playing with his nose. Occasionally it seems he forgets to breathe for long passages, as in the allegro, when his face got redder than Jean Sibelius’ at an open bar. Otherwise, he’s careful, precise, and not too showy.
He was best when playing lightly, and weaved his instrument in and out of the orchestra rather than drown it out, making him sound like an organic part of it. He got to demonstrate nimble fingerwork in the cadenza (control-freak Beethoven wrote it to sound improvised, but it’s not) but mostly eschewed rubato. The only real personal touch he threw in was a slight emphasis on alternating quarter notes to give the adagio’s theme a kind of jaunty beat.
Levit’s was the closing piece for the night, and the audience applauded him warmly but emptied out of the concert hall quickly. Their enthusiasm for the NSO’s other guest, conductor Jiří Bělohlávek was more muted, probably due to his choice of programming. Bělohlávek is, it turns out, a big champion of fellow Czech composer … no, not Dvořák, bet you thought I was gonna say him though, right? Maybe Janáček? Nope … the rather less celebrated Bohuslav Martinů. Which is kind of like being a champion of Cleveland Cavaliers forward Richard Jefferson. So Bělohlávek led the orchestra in a first time ever NSO performance of the 20th century composer’s weird sixth symphony. It was actually mildly entertaining. It shifts unpredictably from major to minor keys, flirts with atonalism, jazz, and even regular old classicism. Under Bělohlávek’s baton, these changes were so subtle and fluid that you could float through Martinů’s crazy mood swings without really noticing them. One thing you might notice, though, is Martinů did rip off Dvořák quite a bit, along with Debussy. But that’s not such a bad thing. “Good artists copy,” said Picasso, “great artists steal.”
But while Martinů’s second movement is a fun head trip, the third goes on a while and seemed to stretch the audience’s open-mindedness to the limit. The program’s opener, Mozart’s 38th Symphony, was more crowd-pleasing but less remarkable. Bělohlávek led a reduced orchestra, strings and woodwinds, for that one, and led them well, aside from occasional messiness from the winds. Again, his tempo and dynamic changes were subtle and imperceptible, and when he called for more energy from any section, they responded.
Bělohlávek, a BBC Symphony Orchestra veteran, is an assured conductor, and appeared to have a natural connection with the NSO’s musicians. Normally any guest conductor this season would be fair game for speculation about Eschenbach’s replacement. And who knows, Bělohlávek might be a candidate. But he’s also pushing 70, the age at which Eschenbach announced he would retire from the NSO. I would guess the Kennedy Center wants someone younger who can stick around a bit longer. It’s the Idris Elba problem: He’s young enough now to make one James Bond film, maybe two. But if you want to build a franchise, you gotta think a few years ahead.
The program continues Friday, Nov. 20 and Saturday, Nov. 21 at 8 p.m. at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. $15 – $99.