Illustration by Maria-Ines Gul

Igor Levit: ‘I thought, why not invite everybody out there into my living room?’

The virtuoso pianist describes his live-streamed lockdown concerts
December 9, 2021

For most professional musicians, lockdown was the most miserable time of their lives. In early 2020 the curtain abruptly came down on a lifetime of rehearsal and performance. Why practise if there’s no one to listen?

For Igor Levit, then 33 and a rising star in a select galaxy of international pianistic celebrities, the experience was very different. “I had this thought on 10th March,” he recalls some 20 months later. “There is this very old idea about house concerts, about salons. Is there a chance to bring this into the 21st century?

“I thought, ‘Yeah, why not invite everybody out there into my living room?’ So, without any equipment, that’s what I did.” 

Each night at 7pm he set up his smartphone in his apartment in the Mitte area of Berlin and played whatever came into his head, broadcasting live on Twitter. The response was extraordinary. Levit calculates that his living room concerts reached something like 2.3m people, or the equivalent of playing London’s Wigmore Hall 42,000 times. 

“The audience reacted with incredible curiosity, no matter how crazy the pieces were that I played, no matter how unknown they were. There were people who ‘met’ friends for life. It really was like a fireplace gathering, you know. 

“Look, I love concerts. But there are so many layers, so many doors to walk through. There are promoters, managers, contracts, programme notes, lighting, this and that—a whole bunch of things to think about until you reach the actual audience. What happened during the house concerts is that this all fell away. 

“No questions about acoustics, what piano you were playing; no repertoire questions, no planning, no rules, no threat. There was a direct communication between me and the audience which was extraordinary and quite life-changing.”

Now Levit is getting used to changing his life back again. He was speaking from California, where he was due to play Thomas Mann’s piano, just returned to its original exiled 1940s home in Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles. The Russian-born virtuoso, dressed in jeans and a hoodie, had had just four hours’ sleep—a harbinger of the perpetual jetlag that awaits him as his international career resumes. 

He also found lockdown time to record a huge, almost-forgotten, modernist work by the late Scottish composer Ronald Stevenson: his 85-minute long Passacaglia on DSCH from the early 1960s. Arguably the longest unbroken single movement piano piece in history, it has more than 300 variations on four notes derived from the initials of Dmitri Shostakovich and has taken the best part of a decade to master—“like re-reading War and Peace every second page.”

“Levit’s living room concerts reached 2.3m people—the equivalent of playing Wigmore Hall 42,000 times”

He thinks back to his last concert before lockdown—on 10th March 2020 in Hamburg. “There was a very intense atmosphere… It was my birthday, there was this gratitude that this concert actually happened, and there was at the same time this atmosphere like the end of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, or one of the last passages of Johann Strauss’s Radetzky March, where you see an era end.”

“You can feel something end and a feeling that catastrophe is waiting for you. That’s what I feel like when I hear the end of that Mahler symphony and that’s how I felt that night. It was clear to me we were about to have a seismic shift in literally everything, every aspect of our lives.”

Apart from the house concerts, it was a chance for Levit to experiment. As well as finally mastering the Stevenson piece, he got to play more Schubert; to improvise; to try out “electronic stuff” with synthesisers and sensors. “We’ll see what happens…”