Born in Russia, but rigorously trained in Germany from early childhood: a surprisingly large number of piano stars have emerged via this route, with 26-year-old Igor Levit prominent among them.
Levit followed infant successes in Nizhny Novgorod with teenage ones in Athens, Hamamatsu, and Tel Aviv before being installed as a Radio 3 New Generation Artist, at which point he confided to an interviewer that he never took holidays. And when you watch him at the keyboard – nose a few inches from his hands like an anxious jockey – you sense the intensity of his determination.
His programmes often spring surprises, and this time he opened with a youthful Capriccio by JS Bach which didn’t sound like Bach at all. Subtitled "on the departure of his most beloved brother", this was a jeu d’esprit woven round the idea of the traveller’s friends first trying to dissuade him from his journey by describing the accidents which might befall him, then lamenting his intransigeance, then hailing his return. Trumpet- and horn-calls permeate the piece, with wild and slippery modulations doing service for the dangers: the tongue-in-cheek mock-seriousness of Levit’s performance was nicely judged, and the music had charm.
Then it was down to business with Beethoven’s great Sonata in E Opus 109 to which Levit brought heroic grandeur, with the Prestissimo hurtling thrillingly along. The Sarabande-like theme with variations which is the heart of this work progressed in its great circle back to its starting point with majestic assurance; Levit’s big and glowing sound conjured up landscapes filled with drama along the way. He had segued from the Bach into this work without a break, and after it he again sat poised, hands motionless on the keyboard, ready to segue into the Schubert Allegretto to follow, but somebody clapped, the spell was broken, and he reluctantly stood up to acknowledge the applause.
His second half consisted of four luminously beautiful Liszt transcriptions of Schubert songs, followed by Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No 7. Conceived in war and impregnated with its spirit, the toccata of this work demands physical fury, and Levit rose so magnificently to that challenge that when he’d finished he staggered round the stage as if taken aback by his own ferocity. His encore – Liszt’s Liebestod transcription – inspired him to even greater brilliance. Never was the sex act more exquisitely and suggestively evoked in a piano piece, and so it was here.