Igor Levit was born in 1987 in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia (the same city, he noted, as another, slightly younger piano star, Daniil Trifonov), where his mother was a serious pianist and his father an engineer. His family moved to Germany when he was 8 — in search, he said, of better opportunities — and settled in Hanover, where his mother still teaches at the conservatory.
Some conservatories, including the Juilliard School, have cut back on piano students, fearing that the market is saturated. Against those odds Mr. Levit has managed to break through, thanks to a combination of his playing and his daring — as in a 2015 collaboration with the artist Marina Abramovic on a stark staging of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations in New York.
He wasn’t shy, even as a teenage student. It was in the conservatory library that he first discovered the music of Mr. Rzewski, now 79, a passionately political American pianist and composer who is eminent in new-music circles.
Igor Levitand one of his closest friends, Georg Diez, who writes about politics and culture for Der Spiegel, traveled together to the Idomeni refugee camp along the Greece-Macedonia border a couple of years ago to better understand the refugee crisis.
“What fascinates me about Igor is that art, life and politics are all one,” Mr. Diez said. “You have to understand suffering, the state of the world, in order to understand music.”
“The refugee crisis,” he said, “was a point of no return for me.”
When Mr. Levit gave his North American debut recital at the Park Avenue Armory in 2014, Alex Poots, who was then its artistic director, was taken by his musicianship and thoughtfulness. " Beethoven's music gives me energy. But powerful quotes from Beethoven's writings are not my most important source of energy. My friends are, people who are around here. Not quotes from books. And I wouldn't need these quotes in order to be a responsible citizen of my country. But the music itself — that is the great source of inspiration, energy and reason for me being here. I am life-obsessed, in any form. I just need the feeling that I don't miss out anything. I want to breathe in whatever surrounds me. That's what I'm obsessed about, totally — and I'm fine with that. "
Hanover University of Music, Drama and Media offers the crème de la crème of European music tutorship.
For Levit, Hanover became the starting point, and at the time he wanted to meet Swedish pianist and philosopher Hans Leygraf.
"Leygraf offered for me to be one of his younger students," the 24 year-old said.
Leygraf, who died last year, was half German and Austrian. He had his first performance with the Stockholm Philharmonic at the age of nine. Levit calls him, the "wonderful Hans Leygraf."
"We were driving from Hanover to Salzburg – totally crazy," he added.
At some point, the travel became unbearable because he was still attending school. Back in Hanover, he studied with Karl-Heinz Kämmerling, Matti Raekallio and Bernd Goetzke.
"One is never perfect technically, one is always learning," Levit said, reiterating his motto and desire to continually learn new techniques.
Igor Levit is bilingual, but he prefers to speak German rather than his native language. He believes Russian is an asset. Still, he neither wants to be defined as Russian, nor German.
"I am invariably of Jewish descent, born in Russia,
with roots in Germany. A pianist in love with Europe," he added. Nevertheless, the young pianist believes his interpretation of Beethoven is unthinkable without a deep commitment to the German language.
During the coronavirus it has been a ritual for thousands of people confined to their houses: at 7 p.m. sharp, the screen of the smartphone shows an initially empty living room. A grand piano and a painting can be seen in the background. A few seconds later the host enters the screen, the star pianist Igor Levit. Always dressed in casual black, either barefoot or in socks, he sits down at the piano.