The four works that feature in Igor Levit’s latest double album span a period of 135 years that extends from around 1837 to 1973. Four very different genres are represented here. Only one of these works was originally conceived for piano solo, but Igor Levit’s exploration of borderline experiences in our lives — death in Life (2018), spirituality in Encounter (2020) and now, with Tristan, the link between love, death and our need for redemption — inevitably means that it is not just masterpieces for the piano that are central to his concern but, above all, compositions in which certain thematic associations find their most personal expression.
And yet Levit’s own thoughts revolve less around the themes of love and death as such than around the experience of night and of the nocturnal as a dark alternative to our conscious actions by day. Exceptional psychological states set the tone here: “Night has so many faces. It can signal a place of refuge or the loss of control, it signifies love and death, and it is the place where we feel our deepest, most paranoid fears,” says Levit. “The Adagio from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony contains a famous outburst of pain in the form of a dissonant chord, and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is all about a kind of emotional nuclear meltdown. All of the piece’s essential actions take place at night. In his reminiscences, Hans Werner Henze likewise recalled his work on Tristan as a time of nightmares and of dreamlike hallucinations.”
Hans Werner Henze’s Tristan — described by the composer as a set of “Preludes for piano, tape and orchestra” — is a raptly refined hybrid work comprising passages for solo piano and electronics and is a concerto, a symphony and a piece of music theatre all wrapped into one. Lasting some forty-five minutes, it is at the heart of Igor Levit’s new release. It is also his first orchestral recording to date. Franz Welser-Möst and Levit have performed it at the Salzburg Festival and with the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. The present recording of this highly suggestive work was made during the concerts that were given in Leipzig in November 2019 and represents an alternative to the recording that was made under the composer’s own direction and that involved a number of compromises.
Henze’s engagement with the theme of Tristan stemmed originally from his plans to write a ballet for the choreographer John Cranko. He had already prepared three tapes with Peter Zinovieff, a sound engineer who was one of the pioneers of electronic music in London, where his work had a huge influence on the pop music of that period, notably on Pink Floyd. Among the pieces that can be identified in these tapes are polyphonic works from the Renaissance, excerpts from the Funeral March from Chopin’s Second Piano Sonata and the Prelude to Act Three of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Henze then wrote the virtuosic orchestral parts on the basis of the electronic tracks. He had already begun an initial Prelude for piano solo and to this he now added two more preludes, so that the work finally grew to a total of six movements. The month of September 1973 witnessed a bloody military coup in Chile. W. H. Auden, a poet whom Henze had greatly admired, died in Vienna. And the following month one of the composer’s closest friends, Ingeborg Bachmann, died from the burns that she had suffered in a fire. Henze was plunged into a deep psychological crisis. He finally completed Tristan in Venice, where Wagner had died in 1883.
Liszt’s nocturne in A♭ major — his Liebestraum no. 3 — is now a sentimental showstopper for poets of the keyboard. It derives from a setting of melancholic lines by Ferdinand Freiligrath (1810–76) whose opening strophe reads:
“Oh, love as long as you can love!
Oh, love as long as you could crave!
That hour is fast approaching when
You’ll stand and weep beside the grave!”
The same sense of nocturnal despair is also found with Mahler, who in late July 1910 was working on the opening movement of his Tenth Symphony when he discovered that his wife was having an affair with Walter Gropius. He almost suffered a total mental breakdown but he believed Alma when she assured him that she would never leave him and so he continued his work on the score in Toblach. At the end of this extended movement he incorporated an extremely dissonant nine-note chord throughout which the trumpet sustains the note a. He died only a few months later in May 1911. Igor Levit performs this Adagio in a little-known piano transcription by the Scottish composer Ronald Stevenson, whose great Passacaglia on DSCH he has done so much recently to promote.
Only in Harmonies du soir, the eleventh of Liszt’s twelve Études d’exécution transcendante, is there any sense of reconciliation, a mood established despite the density of the majestic piano textures. The programme ends with Abendklänge, a peaceful counterweight to the ecstasies and nightmares experienced by those Wagnerian and Mahlerian figures who in Wagner’s own words are “devoted to the night.”
“Tristan” is out now in CD, digital and vinyl formats.