On August 23th, 2020, Igor Levit gave a recital in Luzern, Switzerland as part of the Lucern Festival replacement Life is Live. I attended the performance with friends.

The programme

Igor Levit played four early sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven:

  • Piano Sonata in D major, Op. 28 Pastoral (Sonata No. 15)
  • G major, Op. 31 no.1 (No. 16)
  • E flat major, Op. 27, no.1 (No. 13)
  • C-sharp major, Op. 27, no.2 (No. 14, “Moonlight”)

Encore: Gesang der Verrückten am Meeresgestade by Charles Valentin Alkan (F), a piece that reminds me of the battle between life and death.

The importance of an evolving repertoire

Wacthing Igor Levit playing piano was like watching sport. Igor the pianist was energetic, sometimes thoughtful and other times totally ecstatic. The music was dynamic, full of contrasts in both tempo and loudness, and sometimes pleasantly surprising. At the climax of No. 13, he was almost kneeing on one leg and played the piano with the rest of the body. I felt like watching a saint sacrificing himself. It was such an intesive performance that I felt I was vibrating along with the strings, and sometimes I even felt there was not only a piano, but an orchestera on the stage.

My take-away from the concert is that artists must their repertoire, a set of pieces that they master and for which they deliver novel insights and leave daring interpretations. For Igor Levit, the focus of his current repertoire is Beethoven’s Sonatas, which he also plays in the Salzburger Festspiele. It is important to communicate with the audience with an established repertoire regularly, not only to earn money for the artists to live, but also to keep, test, and if needed adjust the emotional connections with the audience. At the same time, it is at least equally important to develop new repertoire all the time, digging into both known pieces (Beethoven, Bach) and less known ones (for laymen like me, for instance Rzewski, Alkan). The arists’s life is featured by an ever evolving repertoire.

I guess that a similar concept is also valid for scientists: they must find their own domain where they are an expert and where they offer new insights to the community. At the same time, they are obliged to learn about other domains and to expand their knowledge and expertise.

Secrets of an evolving repertoire: my guesses

What are the secrets of building a continuously expanding repertoire that interests and impresses the audience? I do not know how exactly Igor Levit achieves that, though I guess there are two prerequisites. First, the repertoire must speak to the artist. The artist must be first impressed and thrilled by the music so that he or she can forward the enthusiasm to the audience.

The second prerequisite, which I assume is more important, is that the artist must be him- or herself. In the hope of not being esoteric, I mean with being oneself that the artist is aware of his or her personal traits and needs, accepts and expresses his or her individuality and emotions, stands up for his or her values, and act in the same way as he or she believes. In the word of the sociologist Hartmut Rosa, such an artist seeks for resonating moments in the life.

While I cannot validate these presumptions, my intuitions are that they contribute substantially to the electrifying performance delivered by Igor Levit yeterday. In the hut of a scientist, I guess that a similar recipe applies to scientists and their research as well. While I have no means to verify the causality, the great scientists I know live themselves, and they are impressed, thrilled, sometimes humbled, and always challenged by and challenging the subjects they study.

Some personal reflections

These days, particularly after the lockdown and with many changes as consequneces of the coronavirus pandemic, I often ask myself: what do I want to achieve in my life? What is important for me and what not? How should I behave in order to be responsible for myself, for my family, for the society, for the nature, and for the future generation? I even wonder whether I am entering the mid-life crisis.

I found comfort in the observations by and the words of my wife: I am probably starting a new stage in my life, in which I am trying to pin down the meaning of it. Life may not be only about getting more resources (“addition”), but may also be about giving up and letting go (‘subtraction”). At this moment of exciting yet terrfying uncertainty and insecurity, it is a bliss that I attended the recital by Igor Levit.

On the way to the concert, I stopped at a bookshop and turned a few pages of the book Zusammen leben (living together) by Remo Largo, a swiss pediatrician, whose books I enjoy reading. I was reminded of his fit principle, which essentially states that everyone, children and adults alike, wants to live a life one believes worth living, and wishes that others respect that way of living.

Our ability and preference is partially predefined in our genome, but the value and meaning of life must be sought after, and our life is a long journey, probably consisting of shorter stages like in a bike tour, for that. When I read the book Men’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl this May, or when I watched the film Life Is Beautiful directed by Roberto Benigni almost fifteen years ago, I was shaken deeply, but not anticipating that the query of looking for meaning of life would come so soon and so pressing.

In this aspect, I am more than fortunate to have visited Igor Levit’s recital in Luzern yesterday. I was not only awarded with a storm of music and emotion, but also a few things about being myself, about having a continously growing and renewing repertoire, and about spreading my enthusiasm for activities that I enjoy and defending values that I cherish.

In November Igor Levit will play in Luzern again. I will be there.


Background reading about Igor Levit and his political and social engagement: