Wide breath, open space – Igor Levit about Brahms

Igor Levit's connection with composer Johannes Brahms became more and more intimate during his life. In an interview with Anselm Cybinski, overall dramaturge at Heidelberger Frühling, he enthuses about music that opens up spaces, embraces and should never end.

In addition, the pianist and co-artistic director of the Heidelberger Frühling Musikfestival talks about his anticipation of working with the young Fellows and his colleagues, with whom he will work on key works from Brahms' chamber music oeuvre at the Heidelberger Frühling Musikfestival 2024.

Anselm Cybinski: What specifically does Brahms' music trigger in you?

Igor Levit: I felt it very clearly on stage in a concert recently: there is a strong comfort element in playing these pieces, and it doesn't matter whether you take the moving, agitated movements like Op. 116 No. 1 or No. 7, or the quieter ones. There is something so holding and embracing about this music! No Beethoven sonata gives me that, it gives me something else. I wish with every piece, "Please never stop!" It gives me a safe haven feeling to play that. And also to hear. For me personally, this is the very organic next step in development towards a self-reflective pause.

Anselm Cybinski: Is Brahms really that much riskier than other composers?

Igor Levit: Maybe. But when I imagine that I am given weeks in which I have the opportunity to become completely, deeply involved in Johannes Brahms' music, it fills me with an incredible feeling of happiness. These are programs full of so much emotion, of comfort and tenderness, incredible love, melancholy. Deeply human. And it's not a stressful experience. For example, Beethoven often stresses me out enormously. That speed, the responsiveness, of course that creates pressure. I don't have that with Brahms, but I am really touched, moved. In the happy, in the sad, in the melancholic. Therefore, this is a tremendous gift. This can also be experienced by those who hear. If you can listen to Brahms in a wide variety of genres, you'll go out a lot happier than you came in.

Anselm Cybinski: What about the feeling regarding Brahms? Does he put a relatively direct, immediate emotionality into his music?

Igor Levit: Yes. The way he writes gives all emotions plenty of time and space. It's not this Beethovenian lawn. The breath is wide, everything is more spacious. The meter is basically slow, allowing for breathing in and out even in the most virtuosic things. This deepens the experience enormously. Beethoven is by no means less emotional, but you are already very often in gasps there.

Anselm Cybinski: How do you feel about the sound of Brahms?

Igor LevitWhat I find wonderful, and what suits me very well, is that Brahms is very bass-oriented, he has the tendency to build up the wave from the bottom up. I love to think from the bass and less from the melody. It's a dark sonority, but not black. Natural light – it's good for the eyes, and it's good for the ears. Even in the most dramatic parts, it's still somehow harmonizing.(...)

Anselm Cybinski: You will rehearse and perform the A major quartet together with the excellent young Fellows. What are you looking forward to most at your concerts?

Igor Levit: It's a little bit what I used to enjoy so much in the academies of Heidelberger Frühling. That I may finally experience "Frühling" again not only as a curator and soloist, but as a primal musician. The original form: You meet with your coffee mug in room something or other. You greet each other, start rehearsing, then have lunch together, then back to rehearsal. In the best sense, it brings back a bit of the student days. I'm not the boss on duty here, I don't dictate what anyone has to do, but it's a work of equals. What once existed in the Kammermusik Akademie is now returning. And when that happens with Brahms, it makes me all the happier. The fact that I can create a joint program with my student Lukas Sternath, who is already, at the age of 21, an absolutely extraordinary pianistic phenomenon, makes me very happy. The reencounter with Renaud Capuçon, with whom I get along so well, in all three violin sonatas is a joy anyway.

Anselm Cybinski: In your solo program you focus on the late pieces opp. 116 to 119. Isn't it interesting that you, although in terms of type you are exactly on this track of the German repertoire, are only now really getting started with Brahms?

Igor Levit: I have tried it again and again. But honestly, I often felt that way: I sit down at the piano – I remember this clearly from a few years ago – I want so much, and I lack patience. For me, these pieces were too slow. Too uneventful. Music for more mature people, then? Maybe so. I feel like I can breathe more calmly. And suddenly it feels right to play Opus 116 No. 4, that wonderful E major Intermezzo. Which would have been impossible just seven years ago. Just let it happen. Just leave it. There are mature people in their early 20s, and I'm just at that point now. At the same time, there are still pieces by Brahms for which I have a great deal of respect. At the top of the list is Opus 119 No. 1, the famous B minor Intermezzo. This "sucking melancholy out of every note, with voluptuousness and pleasure", which Brahms himself speaks of with regard to this Adagio, is very, very difficult. But for me, it is now. That makes me very happy.