Book review: House Concert

Igor Levitt and Florian Zinnecker

(Polity, £20)

Pianist Igor Levit has not played in Scotland for a while, having pulled out of his scheduled pre-pandemic appearances with the RSNO and SCO due to illness, although he has performed at London’s Wigmore Hall at least three times this year. One of those concerts included Scots composer Ronald Stevenson’s Passacaglia on DSCH, an 80 minute assault course for piano that he has championed and recorded.

It fits with Levit’s practice in a way that it suits few other pianists. Virtuosic, certainly – in this book, Levit talks of music that is “too big for the piano” and Stevenson’s Passacaglia, with its explicit instructions to sound like other instruments or as if coming from outer space, fits that description – but also the work of a composer of robust views well to the left of today’s political mainstream.

Levit’s detractors – and he has plenty – would contend that he thinks himself “too big for the piano”. Since he came to international attention with his Sony label debut recording of Beethoven’s Late Sonatas a decade ago, Levit has become as well known for his outspoken political views and, until recently, bold presence on social media.

House Concert (published in German, as Hauskonzert, last year and newly translated by Shaun Whiteside) is as much concerned with that side of his public identity as with his musical life, and the title of the book is a little misleading.

During the first, international, Covid-19-necessitated lockdown, Levit was an early exponent of the possibilities of online performance, broadcasting in lo-fi, using basic technology, from his home – solo performances advertised on social media and free to all. Although he was by no means unknown to music-lovers before the pandemic, he undoubtedly found new fans during it.

That story is told in the book, but it is a relatively small part of what is both a memoir of his career so far, and a more specific justification of the responsibility he feels to speak out against racism, antisemitism, and the rise of right-wing movements, particularly – but far from exclusively – in his German homeland.

That’s a lot for a 250-page book, but it is a pacey read, once you get past its structural peculiarities. When artists speak of themselves in the third person, they invite ridicule, often with justification. Although his is the name with top billing, House Concert talks of “Igor Levit” from the start to the finish. As one of the pianist’s hot takes is the necessity of speaking personally, and saying “I” honestly, rather than using the impersonal “one”, this becomes even odder as the book goes on. There are long passages of direct quotation from the man himself, and doubtless he had final say on every word, but the authorial voice is actually that of the Die Zeit journalist identified in smaller print, Florian Zinnecker.

Their collaboration predates the disruption of coronavirus, so Zinnecker is clearly an adaptable chap, as well as a loyal one happy to be identified as in Levit’s camp, but House Concert is probably not the book the pair set out to write. That, to some extent (although not entirely), excuses its chronological waywardness, some repetition, and the imperfect editing, and may in fact mean a volume that will assume a greater importance as a document of these difficult recent times as the years go by.

If that is so, we must hope that is because Levit turns out to be on the winning side. Few musicians are as bold as he has been in using the concert platform to speak about issues beyond music. In House Concert he is clear about why he felt compelled to do so, careful to reiterate precisely what he has said – and how he has been misreported – and honest in his admission of missteps. Most compellingly, he and Zinnecker relate his political development to his performing career. For the pianist, and his amanuensis, there is no separating the impulse to play all of the Beethoven Sonatas, that Stevenson piece, Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated, or Erik Satie’s bizarre epic Vexations, from the compulsion to call-out bigotry and xenophobia.

If that is the headline takeaway from House Concert, the earlier part of it has plenty about the music as well. Although they are very different books, there are parallels with Jeremy Denk’s Every Good Boy Does Fine in the individually unique perspective each memoir brings to the story of the development of a precocious young piano talent. Fine reads though they both are, there is a common ingredient of self-indulgence as well.

It is a lack of editorial rigour that rankles as far as Levit’s book is concerned. I read an uncorrected proof of it, but the finished copy I subsequently received had some glaring holes in the proof-reading. When that is a missing digit in an opus number it hardly matters, but the penultimate sentence of the text (excluding a brief updating Afterword added for the English edition) has retained the nonsensical use of the word “coincidence” where “confidence” is quite clearly the word intended.

That is unfortunate, because the pianist may well mean House Concert to be some sort of last word on a distinct phase of his life and career. I doubt Igor Levit’s views have changed in any way, but he does seem to have been more singularly focused on the piano keyboard than the one on his phone of late.

Keith Bruce