On DSCH: Works by Shostakovich and Stevenson review – Levit’s spectacular wild ride | Music
Two years ago, Igor Levit devoted a recital at the Wigmore Hall to Ronald Stevenson’s massive Passacaglia on DSCH. It was an extraordinary, unforgettable performance of one of the most singular works in the 20th-century piano repertoire, an 80-minute span of music, composed between 1960 and 1963, which contains a whole range of smaller forms within it, using the DSCH motto, a musical “spelling” ( D, E flat, C, B natural) of Dmitri Shostakovich’s initials, as the basis of the 13-note theme over which it seamlessly unfolds.
Levit’s recording of the Passacaglia, just as magnificent as it was live, is paired with Shostakovich’s equally epic set of 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op 87. That isn’t exactly an everyday work, especially in a complete performance, but Stevenson’s quirky masterpiece is the real rarity here. It’s conceived in the grand virtuoso tradition of Liszt, Alkan and Busoni, rarely heard in concert and recorded just five times previously, including one by the composer himself and another from the 1960s by John Ogdon that never seems to have been transferred to CD. As Levit shows so spectacularly, it takes a wild ride through a cornucopia of musical forms, quotations and allusions, with references ranging from Bach to 20th-century revolutionary songs – one passage is marked to be played “with an almost Gagarinesque sense of space”, a reference to the Soviet cosmonaut – and of course to Shostakovich, to whom Stevenson dedicated the work.
Alongside the public bravura of the Passacaglia, Shostakovich’s set, composed across just five months in 1950 and 1951, often seems like a quiet, intimate diary. They follow the scheme of The Well-Tempered Clavier in working through all the major and minor keys, though rather than Bach’s chromatic ordering, Shostakovich organises his cycle around the circle of fifths, with each major-key prelude and fugue paired with its relative minor, so that the C major and A minor pieces are followed by the G major and E minor, and so on. Debts to Bach abound, starting at the very beginning with the “white-note” C major Prelude, alongside both oblique and explicit references to Shostakovich’s own works, including the 10th Symphony, which he was working on at the same time.
Most of all, though, Levit’s performance reveals what wonderfully pianistic pieces they are, whether considered individually or as a magnificently arcing sequence. While the recordings by Tatyana Nikolyeva, to whom Shostakovich dedicated the work and who gave its first performance, have a special authenticity, Levit’s comes very close to their quiet mastery, while his performance of the Stevenson has never been equalled.