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Briefly Noted: Igor Levit drinks the philtre

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Wagner, Act I Prelude from Tristan und Isolde (Henze, Liszt, Mahler), Igor Levit

(released on September 9, 2022)
Sony Classical 886449503582 | 1h41
The Russian-German pianist Igor Levit is on a Tristan und Isolde kick. His new two-disc set, titled Tristan, pairs Hans Werner Henze's ground-breaking Tristan, from 1974, with the Wagner work that inspired it, especially the notorious Act I prelude, transcribed by Zoltán Kocsis. The Henze is an elusive, unclassifiable work, combining piano solo, electronic tapes, and orchestra. This thoughtful rendition, recorded in November 2019, features the Leipzig Gewandhaus under Franz Welser-Möst. An authoritative booklet essay by Anselm Cybinski lays out the work's many other musical quotations and allusions (Brahms, Mahler, and Chopin among them) as well as the multiple layers of meaning encoded in it.

Levit surrounds this enigmatic modern piece with romantic works he sees as related. From Liszt he takes the A-flat major nocturne known as Liebesträum No. 3, derived from a song set to poetry by Ferdinand Freiligrath. The poem, quoted and translated in the booklet, is the antidote to the love-death of Wagner's opera, a plea for lovers to remain alive, and therefore love, as long as they may. The disc concludes with "Harmonies du Soir," the eleventh piece from the same composer's Études d'exécution transcendante, an evocation of the night in which Wagner's lovers try to hide their passion.

This "program of Tristanesque works," as Cybinski puts it, includes Ronald Stevenson's piano arrangement of the first movement (Adagio) of Mahler's Tenth Symphony. One could see this selection as representing the point of view of King Marke on the Tristan story, as Mahler wrote it in the period after he learned of the affair between his wife, Alma, and Walter Gropius. Stretched out to over 27 minutes, this version grows organically from its opening (given to the violas in the orchestral score), that has considerable resonance with the main motif of Wagner's Act I prelude.

Levit returned to Washington this week, for the first appearance since his striking local recital debut in 2017, presented again by Washington Performing Arts. Thursday's excellent concert, in addition to exquisite Schumann and a new piece commissioned from jazz pianist Fred Hersch, added one last Tristan nugget to this program. On the second half, Levit played the Kocsis transcription of the Act I prelude from this recording, following it with a Faustian interpretation of Liszt's vast B minor sonata.

The juxtaposition made me realize, for the first time, that the final measure of Wagner's prelude is identical to the first measure of the Liszt sonata: two short staccato strikes on G in 6/8 meter. Wagner ends up on G without really giving the listener much reason to think of that as the keynote of the prelude, and Liszt immediately obscures the note with the descending scalar pattern that opens the sonata. To draw attention to this conjunction, Levit elided the two pieces, not only eschewing any pause between them, but making Wagner's last two notes simultaneously Liszt's first two.

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