“Rock Bottom” Navigating the Corona Crisis with Pianist Extraordinaire Igor Levit

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In March, pianist Igor Levit agreed to allow DER SPIEGEL to follow him during his corona-lockdown house concerts and beyond. He didn’t know at the time that his living room performances would both boost his career and weigh on his psyche.

By Carolin Pirich und Britta Stuff

At Home

March 12, Ludwig van Beethoven, “Piano Sonata No. 21 in C major, Op. 53”

The first movement of the “Piano Sonata No. 21 in C major, Op. 53,” also called the “Waldstein Sonata,” begins with the rhythmic repetition of a C major chord, a rapid pulse that makes it sound as though time is rushing by.

But for the last several days, the world has been a slower, quieter place, and Igor Levit heads to the electronics store Saturn on Berlin’s Alexanderplatz square, where he buys a tripod and a mount for his mobile phone, all for just 24 euros. Earlier that day, he tweeted out that he was going to perform that evening. He wrote: “You’re the audience. Starting today, 7pm EST, I’ll play something for you from my home, here on twitter.”

At 7 p.m., he sits down at the grand piano in his apartment, an instrument he calls “Edwin” because it once belonged to the pianist Edwin Fischer. Levit has placed a few random pictures on the piano along with a prize he once won. And he plays the “Waldstein Sonata,” a piece that is considered Levit’s masterpiece and which is special for the way it reveals the transition from the classical period to the romantic. It opens up a space that nobody could have foreseen when it was first written.

When he is finished playing, Levit pounds his fist on the piano bench, stands up and walks toward the tripod. The video goes dark.

March 23, Beethoven, “Piano Sonata No. 31, A-flat major, Op. 110”

By now, he has played 11 concerts at his home, beginning each evening at 7 p.m., with the only exception coming on March 18, when he started a bit earlier so as not to conflict with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s televised address to the nation. He has played Beethoven’s “Appassionata,” Schumann’s “Fantasie in C major” and Shostakovich’s “Piano Sonata in B minor”. The arrangement of pictures on his piano has changed, but his routine has thus far been consistent: He sits on his bench and says a few words about the piece he has chosen for the evening, first in German and then in English, usually wearing sweatpants and slippers. On one occasion, he described a Beethoven sonata by saying it was as if the music could take you into its arms and make everything OK for a moment. Another time, he chose a chaconne from Bach in a Brahms arrangement because it is “full of mourning” yet “provides consolation” in the middle.

In music, there is a symbol called the fermata, sometimes called the corona for its resemblance to a crown: an arch with a dot below. When it is placed above a note, it means that the note should be held for longer than normal. When there is no note, it is a rest symbol. But it is up to the musician to decide how long the rest should last.

In these days of March 2020, it is as though there is a fermata above the entire world. People have returned home, schools have been closed and restaurants, beauty salons and concert houses have likewise shut their doors. The streets are empty, and police are patrolling the parks. Everybody from artists to tax advisers, are on their own.

The last several years of Levit’s life have essentially been lived in fast-forward. At the young age of 33, he is one of the most famous pianists in Germany. Fully 10 years ago, the music critic Eleonore Büning wrote that he doesn’t just “have the stuff to become one of the great pianists of this century,” he already is.

He was supposed to be playing at the Heidelberger Frühling music festival this spring and then in Rome, with the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. He was then planning to head for London, to play with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and then to New York for a performance in Carnegie Hall. He was going to play the “Hammerklavier” sonata and then Busoni’s “Piano Concerto.” He would have soaked up the applause before traveling onward to another stage, another piece and more applause.

His apartment in the Mitte district of Berlin is large and airy. The walls are lined with houseplants while his laundry has been hung out to dry in the middle of the living room. Nearby, at the edge of the room, is his Steinway grand piano. High French doors lead to a smaller room with a desk and some shelves. He has carefully stacked some books on the floor, intending to arrange them. He lives alone in the apartment.

It is 6:30 p.m. when he opens the front door and leads the way into the kitchen. “It’s a complete clusterfuck,” he says.

He says he spent the day doing what a lot of people are doing these days: shopping. He went to Metro, where a lot of the shelves were bare. He opens his cupboards, which are well stocked with rice and pasta, and he shows off his cookbooks, which look as though they have never been opened. He says he didn’t need to get any toilet paper. He counted his supply before he left: 58 rolls.

He says that he also bought himself a television today, spitting out the word “television” as though it was a contagious disease. He spent 17 years without a television, never wanting or needing one. But now, he feels that he should maybe watch the news from time to time – as though he has never before felt the need to bring the world outside into his living room.

He says: “This is absolute rock bottom.” And then he brings out the cognac.

When asked how he decided to start giving house concerts, he says he couldn’t just sit around at home the whole time.

Just before 7 p.m., he sets up two mobile phones on two tripods, one for Instagram and the other for Twitter, and plays the piano sonata which, he says, revolves around “the idea of the will to live.”

March 30, Beethoven, “Piano Sonata No. 18 in E-flat major, Op. 31”

He has set up a YouTube channel and uploaded a video showing him playing Billy Joel with his back to the keyboard. He says he is feeling better physically than he has in a long time. For two years, he says, he suffered from headaches due to stress, but they are now gone. He has bought himself a cake pan, a mixer and a roasting tray.

A total of 350,000 people watched the first concert he gave on March 12, and the following concerts have also received tens of thousands of views. In the comments, people write that they are happy for every single note and they post hearts. During this period when people aren’t allowed to embrace each other, it seems as though music provides one of the few opportunities to experience intimacy. Something that touches the emotions without any physical touching.

Levit figures his repertoire is large enough to be able to play 100 evening concerts. Beethoven wrote 32 piano sonatas, and he can play all of those, having recorded them the year before for an album. 2020 is the year of Beethoven and Levit is widely seen as a Beethoven master. In addition, there is Bach, Brahms, Schubert, Liszt, Mozart, Mussorgsky, Rzewski and others. One hundred is a rather high number for a classical pianist.

He says there are some rather great aspects to the house concerts, things that he hopes to retain. The fact, for example, that he doesn’t have to put on the silly stage outfits. That he can decide at lunch what he wants to play that evening and doesn’t have to play the pieces discussed with a concert promoter two years previously.

He knows that the measures implemented to control the coronavirus pandemic are important, he says, but there is another aspect to them. Like many other people at the moment, he says it has been particularly challenging to be alone, especially at the start and end of the days. He wakes up alone and goes to bed alone.

His days feel a bit like treading water, he says, doing all he can not to sink beneath the surface. The house concerts, he says, are the only thing that gives his days any kind of structure, and they provide him with something to hold on to.

He started taking sleeping pills, but because they made him feel unrested when he woke up in the morning, he stopped again. At night, he dreams of past relationships.

April 2, Beethoven, “Piano Sonata Nr. 21 in C major, Op. 53”

When the “Waldstein Sonata” was originally published, critics told Beethoven that it was too long, so the composer replaced the second movement. The new middle of the piece is so short, so nondescript, that you have to listen closely to even recognize it as a discrete movement.

The German president’s website on this April 2 reads: “In his video message today, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will address the difficult situation facing many artists who are currently unable to perform. The president has invited pianist Igor Levit to play his daily livestream concert in Schloss Bellevue. The president’s welcome and the concert by Igor Levit will be streamed on Instagram starting at 7 p.m.”

It is Levit’s 20th house concert – and the first one in which he is wearing a suitcoat.

Steinmeier says: “When we wake up in the morning, we recognize our world, but it still seems strangely unreal.”

April 5, Peter Tchaikovsky, “The Seasons, Op. 37b”

It’s a warm afternoon, the sun is shining and Levit is standing in his study. The coronavirus lockdown has led many people to reorganize their homes, and Levit is no different. He has alphabetized the books on his shelf, but there is still a pile on the floor. The letter Z. They don’t fit.

He wonders: “Should I just throw the Zs away?”

It’s wonderful, he says, that people like his house concerts so much, but he needs to get his life back.

To fully understand the success Levit has had with his streamed concerts, you have to go back in time a bit. Levit, who has 100,000 Twitter followers and more than 30,000 on Instagram, has been tweeting for years, sometimes about music and frequently about politics. He tweets out support for the maritime missions seeking to save migrants in the Mediterranean. He tweets out his disgust with racism. He grows angry when discussing U.S. President Donald Trump. It is important to Levit to have a role to play outside of music as well. He says that he doesn’t want to just be the guy who pushes down piano keys.

It’s not particularly common for a classical musician to be so vocal about politics. And it is especially uncommon for a classical musician to have so many followers on social media.

Levit has been the target of a fair amount of hatred as a result. Some find him annoying, too omnipresent. Others think he is too eager to insist that he is on the right side. During the coronavirus lockdown, Levit has stopped tweeting about politics. He says it doesn’t feel right. But his new reality free of pushback also feels wrong.

During a walk outside, he stops frequently and says things like: “I’m not just Igor the comfort giver.” Or: “I’m not the national pianist.” He says that this is now absolute rock bottom.

April 10, Paul Dessau, “Guernica”

Many catastrophes in our world begin with a bang before silence descends. But corona began with silence.

The small park in front of Levit’s home is cordoned off with police tape fluttering in the wind as paper handkerchiefs blow across the grass. The streets are empty, and lights are on behind most windows. It feels a bit like Christmas Eve.

When the house concert starts at 7:20 p.m., the music can be heard out on the street through Levit’s closed window. He is playing a sharp-sounding, 12-tone piece about the Spanish town of Guernica, which was almost completely destroyed by bombs in 1937.

Every catastrophe has its music. There is always someone who tries to fill the silence, sometimes with a new composition, sometimes with something that was already there.

In this pandemic, artists can only look at each other and collaborate from their living rooms. The Rolling Stones, Billie Eilish, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift performed for an online benefit concert. The International Opera Choir did an internet rendition of the “Prisoners Chorus” out of the Verdi opera “Nabucco.” Each singer was a box on the screen, each of them alone.

April 20, Ronald Stevenson, “Passacaglia on DSCH”

The grand piano is now in the middle of the room, with Levit having pushed it out of the corner during the day. He says he was bored.

Levit is on the phone discussing the situation facing artists and performers. He says into the phone: “You have to give people an outlook, otherwise they will fall into depression.”

The Berlin city-state government recently announced that coronavirus measures won’t be loosened any time soon for concert halls. Musicians and artists are not considered to be essential workers, as though art was expendable.

Levit yells into his phone: “Where am I right now? I’m on a concert tour and am supposed to start playing in just a moment, you idiot!”

“This is absolute rock bottom,” he says.

He says he baked a chocolate cake for the first time in his life and tried to sprinkle the powdered sugar in the shape of the Star of David. He says the cake is quite good. But what about everything else?

“Everything is being reconsidered at the moment, but what role does culture have to play? It’s seen merely as entertainment that can be done without.” He goes on: “What is actually preventing me from setting up my piano outside? The police wouldn’t be able to get there fast enough.”

Some would say he has enough money, Levit continues, that he is a star and it’s easy for him to give house concerts. But what about the others? They can’t even pay their rent.

Classical musicians no longer earn their money with CDs. They need to perform. Almost all musicians are struggling to make ends meet at the moment, from classic and jazz to pop bands and choir singers. An adequate business model for streaming concerts hasn’t yet been found.

Levit says he knows that he has it easier because he doesn’t have to worry about his finances. Still, he says, “I can’t perform in person either, and my future is also murky.”

He plays the “Passacaglia,” a piece of around 90 minutes. It requires the pianist to bend far forward and reach into the heart of the piano to pluck the strings. The sun sets, and by the time he is finished, darkness has fallen.

“Everything is being reconsidered at the moment, but what role does culture have to play? It’s seen merely as entertainment that can be done without.”

April 27, Max Reger, “Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Johann Sebastian Bach, Op. 81”

He has since made a few more purchases: a grill, balcony furniture and a kitchen rack to hang his pans from. He wants to buy a golden chain for his bicycle.

He wraps his arms around his torso as though he is hugging himself. He says he has had to cut ties with some people. A friend of his, he says, told him that he shouldn’t be hoping to perform since people could become infected with the coronavirus and die. Dead people can’t clap, she told him.

Reger is a composer who loves control and he stipulates precisely how each note is to be played. On this evening, it sounds almost violent.

May 15, 2Pac feat. Dr. Dre, “California Love”

The world is slowly opening back up again and Levit has played his final house concerts, which included the Bach “Goldberg” Variations, in which, following the opening aria, there are 30 variations. Still the same notes, just played differently.

Levit says that at some point, he started checking how many people had watched immediately after he finished playing. That is when he realized that it was time to stop. He will go on to give one more concert 20 days later because he’ll start missing the online shows. But that will be the last one, for a total of 53.

He is sitting in his kitchen and says he is so tired. He has started traveling again, with a trip to Hannover two weeks ago. He says: “It was absolute rock bottom.”

It was the 70th anniversary of the NDR Radiophilharmonie, a philharmonic orchestra belonging to the German public broadcaster NDR. He played Mozart in an empty theater, but it was streamed online. Sitting in an empty theater and warming up before a show is actually really cool, he says, if you know that the room will later fill up with people. But on this occasion, Levit says, the room made no sense to him because it was lifeless.

Levit says he is living in a moment of complete desperation and feels lost. “I feel like I am unemployed, aimless, purposeless, disembodied, glutinous, old, fat and slow.” He pauses after each word.

“But who am I kidding?” he then says. “I spent too much money on a grill that is now just standing around. I go shopping and make fish for myself, but that isn’t my life. I don’t need dinner, I just need three raw tomatoes. But I need the feeling: I am.”

But can you still be if you are unable to perform?

Four years ago, Levit’s best friend, Hannes Malte Mahler, died in a bicycle accident. He wasn’t able to free himself from the toeclips of his racing bike fast enough. But even after Mahler died, Levit gave a concert a short time later. Mahler loved cycling, Levit says, and now that he is cycling everywhere as well, he thinks a lot of his friend. It’s almost as though the past has caught up with him now that he has stopped moving.

“You have to give people an outlook, otherwise they will fall into depression.”

There is an episode of “The Simpsons” in which Bart Simpson sells his soul. After he does so, automatic supermarket doors stop opening for him and when he breathes on glass, it doesn’t fog up. Levit says that’s how he is feeling these days. Like air.

Many musicians feel like a ghost without the stage. One violinist says that she goes into the forest to play and imagines that the birds are her audience. Levit had an audience during his house concerts, but it was invisible. He had a stage, but it was in his living room. He lost an entire world, as have many in these times.

Like all musicians, concert pianists spend the majority of their time with their instruments. They always have work to do, and at some point, they stop thinking about it. They just do it. Levit has been playing the piano since he was three years old. His mother, also a pianist, was his first teacher.

At the moment, though, he’s not playing at all, for the first time since he was a child. He says he’ll sit down at his instrument for 10 minutes and then he starts crying. He’s not at all good at doing things for himself, he says. He has also stopped listening to classical music, instead preferring hip-hop and rap, using headphones.

He has only used his television on three occasions. “Do you need a TV?” he asks.

In the Studio

May 30, Erik Satie, “Vexations”

Three lines of notes, a single theme with just two variations. Satie composed the “Vexations” at the end of the 19th century. The lines are supposed to be repeated 840 times, a piece not unlike the rosary, where the words start blurring after a time and lose their meaning. Satie wanted the piece to be played “très lent,” meaning very slow. At that pace, it would take 28 hours to play.

“Vexations” has been performed on occasion, usually with different pianists taking turns. Only very few have played all 840 repetitions by themselves. It is said that the piece can trigger hallucinations after a time. Once, a pianist started seeing bugs crawl out from between the keys and he had to stop. Performing “Vexations” is somewhere between torture in art and an attempt at landing in the “Guinness Book of World Records.”

Levit says he started thinking about which piece of music fits best to these times. “Vexations,” he says, isn’t progressive. It just keeps revolving around the same thing. It’s not a piece you can play for a real, in-person audience, he says, yet it is so easy that anyone can play it. “I’ll give you two days of piano lessons, and then you’ll be able to play it too.”

On this day, Levit is standing in a studio in eastern Berlin. It is 1 p.m., just an hour before he is to start. Levit has rented the space and hired a camera and sound team, ultimately investing quite a bit of money in the event. He plans to auction off the sheet music for charity afterwards. “Vexations” will be streamed live, but this time the filming will be professional.

A friend of Levit’s, a doctor, has come to Berlin in case Levit collapses, while the producer has set up a provisional bed on the floor of the studio. Another grand piano that he owns has been set up on the hardwood floor, an instrument he calls Lulu.

His agent has set up a table next to the piano with water, pieces of pineapple, dates and granola bars.

At 2 p.m., Levit sits down and begins playing the first bars, a 13-centimeter-high pile of paper next to him: 840 pages of music.

He will play for 15-and-a-half hours, throwing each completed page of music onto the floor. At some point, it begins looking as though he is sitting in the middle of a pile of rubble. It takes him a minute and 41 seconds to play the first page. As the hours go by, it’s like being witness to an extended soliloquy, angry at times, but loving at others. Sometimes slow, but usually rather fast. He looks rather tortured as he sits there, and from the outside, you could be forgiven for thinking it is absolute rock bottom.

But when he gets up every now and then for a brief visit to the restroom, he’ll flash the victory sign, or he’ll throw himself onto the sofa in the studio. At 4:29 a.m., during one of the breaks, he says: “I’m going to say into the camera that I’ve discovered a posthumous work of 1,277 variations in F-sharp major.” Everyone present laughs. At 5:29 a.m., he is finished. He lays his face in his hands and closes the fallboard.

Quiet applause. Hugs.

In his kitchen two hours later, he asks: “What’s next?” And then he googles the longest solo piano pieces.

On Stage

August 2, Beethoven, “Piano Sonata No. 21 in C major, Op. 53”

Buildings are constructed for classical music with the sole goal of creating perfect acoustics. In Salzburg, the Grosses Festspielhaus was built into the side of a stone mountain. The Salzburg Festival is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and the event has long attracted an annual pilgrimage of classical music lovers, critics, concert promoters and record-label executives from Europe, Asia and the United States. Salzburg is to musicians what Wimbledon is for tennis players. The focus is on music, but its also a reminder of belonging. Salzburg is the opposite of a house concert.

“They all have their problems, but they’ve done so much.”

If you walk through the city in August, you’ll see limousines letting out men in tuxedos and women in evening dress ahead of the opera premiers. They pass by champagne stands on the way inside. On the Salzach River, excursion boats turn in circles as if dancing the waltz for the tourists. There is now a branch of the supermarket chain Spar in the building where Mozart was born.

It was unclear for quite some time whether the festival would be able to take place as planned. Finally, in June, it was announced that it would be held with smaller audiences, strict hygiene rules, a facemask requirement and no breaks. Suddenly, the living-room ghosts were back on stage, as though everything had just been a bad dream.

That wasn’t the case, of course. Last year, 270,584 tickets were sold for the festival in Salzburg. This year, just 76,383 were on offer. In Berlin, musicians took to the streets in August to demand a future. Concert promoters have begun asking artists if they could perform twice for the price of a single performance. Scientists used a Tim Bendzko concert to study how large events might be held despite the coronavirus pandemic. Levit is returning to a world that isn’t yet completely back to normal.

In his first evening in Salzburg, he once again plays the “Waldstein” Sonata. The third movement ends with a closing Prestissimo. It is said that you can hear the music rebelling against the passing of time. There is no afterglow, just the attempt to continually rise above the moment.

On the day of his performance, Levit is sitting on the terrace of a café smoking a cigarillo, but it keeps going out. His attempts to relight it are continually thwarted by the fact that his heavy, gold lighter is no longer working. He has already played a concert (Mozart) in Cologne and he played Beethoven and Schubert in Granada, though Spain has since been declared a risk area. In Salzburg, he will be playing all 32 Beethoven sonatas over the course of eight evenings. And his schedule is also busy in the weeks that follow, including events in Lucerne, Berlin, Hannover – and he has recorded a CD, including pieces from his house concerts.

When asked about this new world in which he has now landed, he says that he is so unbelievably glad to be able to play again. He says he is free again, happy to be back on stage.

Then he says: “But…”

Levit says that he spoke on the phone to a friend of his yesterday, the jazz musician Fred Hersch, and Hersch told him that Levit has now achieved everything that a classical pianist can achieve and that it is now perhaps time to take a step back from the piano and maybe compose something.

When he was in Spain, Levit said he streamed a few musician biopics, including “Rocketman” about Elton John and a film about Keith Richards. In that film, Richards talks about the Blues singer Muddy Waters, who Levit didn’t know about until then. He then listened to “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.” Listening to that voice, Levit says, was an intense experience, a shock in the best sense of the word. When he thinks about it, he says, it’s as if someone is stabbing a knife into his carotid artery.

He says he has so much more to express. “I can’t get away from the comparison shit,” he says. “They all have their problems, but they’ve done so much.” Levit wonders if he could do it too.

These days, he frequently plays rather unusual encores. On one occasion, it was the world premiere of a piece written especially for him. Sometimes he’ll play jazz, or a ragtime.

On August 21, Levit holds his final performance in Salzburg in the Grosses Festspielhaus. He plays the last three Beethoven sonatas in front of a half-empty concert hall, just as things are supposed to be in these times. One man in the audience crinkles a cough drop out of its cellophane packaging, someone else gets a phone call and another receives a text message. One woman cries quietly into her mask as a couple holds hands across the empty chair between them. When he finishes, almost everyone stands, and they call out “bravo” from behind their masks. The critics write that to watch Levit perform is to be in a constant state of amazement and that his concerts are like a liberation.

He bows. And then he travels onward.

It’s not easy to talk with Levit about the past. He says he can hardly remember anything. He doesn’t remember how he played as a child. He doesn’t remember if playing the piano was agonizing for him. Levit came to Germany with his family in 1995 from the Russian town of Nizhny Novgorod. His first memory of that move, he says, was in the plane on the approach. He was eight years old. Night had already fallen, he says, and he can remember seeing the lights of Dusseldorf.

Now, Levit has discovered something new about himself. He says he is sometimes nostalgic. Sometimes, he says, he thinks back to the time of the house concerts. They were actually quite nice after all.

Der Spiegel

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