Igor Levit seemed to come out of nowhere. Largely unknown at the time of his 2013 debut recording of the last five Beethoven sonatas, the pianist has racked up a nearly unbroken string of accolades for his playing, which is daring, expressive, and inwardly focused in a way that belies his relative youth. (He was born in 1987.) "He is the future," the Los Angeles Times intoned last year.
Given Levit's abrupt early success, it's all the more intriguing that his career has proceeded not in a straight line but by reinvention, detours and course changes rather than straight-line advances. Having started his studies at age 3, Levit went through a period at 16 or 17 when "I simply didn't like the piano at all," he said recently by phone from Berlin, where he moved a few months ago. (Levit was born in Russia, but moved with his family to Germany when he was 8.) "I liked the music, but the instrument, as it is, I disliked a lot." He changed tack and began playing Renaissance vocal music, an immersion that led him, eventually, to Bach, whose music he plays with vital rhythmic force.
Another time, he became dissatisfied with the Romantic-era fare he'd been playing. In search of something new, he discovered the American-born composer Frederic Rzewski, of whom he's become a close friend and of whose works he is a passionate advocate. "I permanently try out new things," he said. "These questions I raise all the time. And out of these questions I make certain decisions, regarding repertoire, regarding myself in general."
That approach, as described by Levit — who makes his Boston Symphony Orchestra debut on Sunday, and his Boston recital debut in February — seems at once profound and straightforward. Deep issues of art and artistry are involved, but the procedure sounds logical, almost common-sense.
"I have never been so much interested in answers to my questions, to be honest," he added. "I'm always more interested in new questions. It's this whole mixture of exploring, which keeps a certain kind of urgency in everything I do."
Sometimes the new paths emerge spontaneously, almost by chance. That was the case with his friendship with the performance artist Marina Abramovic. They were brought together in 2014 by a mutual friend, Alex Poots, then the artistic director of New York's Park Avenue Armory.
Mutual affinities were already apparent when a long conversation about "journeys and loops and experiences" resulted in "Goldberg," an art project centered on Bach's Goldberg Variations. In the December 2015 production, Abramovic had audience members surrender their electronic devices before entering the Armory, at which point they underwent a 30-minute immersion in silence as Levit's piano glided slowly into place. Only then did he begin to play.
The effects were transformative for some listeners, and for Levit. "It's this very simple thing: Switch off your bloody phone! And look what a huge impact it made on people who were listening. And on me – huge. It was quite hard afterward to play on . . . let's call it a normal stage." He called working on the project "the most inspiring, the most happy and fulfilling time in my life."
The Bach is the first entry in Levit's latest Sony recording, which draws together Beethoven's Diabelli Variations (which he will play in the Celebrity Series of Boston's Debut Series in February) and Rzewski's "The People United Will Never be Defeated!" with the Goldbergs. Those three are, Levit said, "the greatest variation cycles we have. I knew, [for] a couple of years, that I have to make this project real. The variations are kind of the essence of what I wanted to record in my first three years. They were just all going to this project."
The reach of these variations goes beyond their vast scope or technical advances, he added. Much more is at stake. "There is this incredible moment of real humanism in these pieces," he says. "There are questions which these pieces raise which are much bigger. They go way beyond questions of the architecture of the piece or how a composer treats a theme or how you do this or that. No. It's the bond it makes with you when you listen to it and when you play it."
Unsurprisingly, Levit's artistic persona continues to evolve. He reckons that he already plays the Beethoven sonatas very differently than he did when his celebrated debut recording came out. He takes as his artistic credo words from the end of "Little Gidding," the last of T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets": "We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time."
Around two years ago, he said, "I had this feeling that now the mixture kind of makes sense. And so I have no idea where the goal might be. . . . You know, I might change my entire opinion tomorrow and think that the path I'm on is completely wrong. But for two years, it seems kind of right."
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Igor Levit, piano
At Tanglewood, Lenox, Aug. 14 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets $20-$101. 888-266-1200, www.bso.org
Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston Debut Series
At Pickman Hall, Longy School of Music of Bard College, Feb. 8, 2017 at 8 p.m. Tickets $25-$65. 617-482-6661, longy.edu