Eight years ago, a young pianist made his New York debut with a brazen program of Beethoven’s final sonatas.
Baby-faced and wearing a bow tie, Igor Levit, then 27, took the stage at the Park Avenue Armory’s intimate Board of Officers Room and proved that age is no impediment in interpreting some of the wisest and most challenging music in the keyboard repertory. “A major new pianist has arrived,” the critic Anthony Tommasini wrote of that night.
Since then, each return engagement has had the air of an important event: Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations with the artist Marina Abramovic at the Armory’s drill hall, recitals with premieres at Carnegie Hall that started in its chamber-size Zankel space before moving to its main auditorium.
Levit, who lives in Berlin, hasn’t brought his most madcap programming to the city — his essential, standard-setting take on Ronald Stevenson’s “Passacaglia on DSCH” or his turn in Ferruccio Busoni’s extravagant Piano Concerto — but he has graduated from newcomer to New York fixture.
One important debut remained, and it came on Friday: his first appearance with the New York Philharmonic.
Now 35, more scruffy than smooth and trading his bow tie for a casual black shirt, he joined the orchestra at Carnegie in Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1. It was one of those evenings — agonizingly, just one performance — that left you wondering whether the Philharmonic had found an artist to keep on speed dial for future seasons.
Holding his own against the orchestra’s characteristic muscularity, Levit offered counterpoint in an expressive touch, an instinctual sense of shape and a gift for navigating the nuances of a piece that keeps one foot in the Classical era and the other in the Romanticism of its time.
Like Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20, also in D minor, the Brahms begins with a long orchestral introduction before the soloist’s softly singing entrance — passion turning into a plea. The Philharmonic, led by Jaap van Zweden, its music director, sounded more aggressive than ardent, and crisp where another ensemble might have been grand.
Van Zweden’s reading didn’t necessarily register as problematic until it was brought into relief by Levit’s arrival, which achieved more tension with less force. His solos were similar to sonatas in their intimacy and breadth of expression (a sensibility that reached its height with his encore, a sonorous yet serene “Nun Komm’ der Heiden Heiland,” transcribed by Busoni from Bach). At the keyboard he was capable of conjuring not only thunder, particularly in the climax of the first movement, but also the troubling calm that can precede it and, as in the Adagio, something like the gentle parting of clouds that follows.
Where soloist and orchestra most aligned was in the Rondo finale; Levit stated the first theme briskly, precisely, and the Philharmonic responded in kind. More here than elsewhere, van Zweden allowed the score to speak for itself, to build naturally toward its joyous D major coda. The piano part wraps up several measures before the end, but Levit’s skill and stage presence had been well established by then — and the audience reacted, the moment he moved to bow, with a swift standing ovation.
The Philharmonic would have its moment, too, after intermission, in Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. And if this work activates instruments like lights on a switchboard, then there was not a dull bulb on Friday. With brasses clear and heroic; winds eloquent and full of personality; and strings speaking as a single unit, this was an ensemble in excellent form. In the fourth movement “Intermezzo interrotto,” especially, the players found a sensitivity absent in the Brahms: lush in its folk-like melody, animated in the nightmarishly parodic interruption and, in the return of the folk tune, movingly soft, with Dvorakian wistfulness.
As he did in Brahms’s Rondo, van Zweden led the Bartok Finale with a restraint that, after simply getting through the virtuosity of the breakneck pace and fugal writing, made way for an organic accumulation toward a lingeringly resonant final chord. It was a glimpse of an approach he doesn’t take often — but that would be welcome, like any appearance by Levit, with the Philharmonic going forward.
New York Philharmonic
Performed on Friday at Carnegie Hall, Manhattan.