CAMBRIDGE — It is possible to lose hours in YouTube videos of pottery being shaped on a wheel, as creation after creation rises from clay-coated hands. In the same way, I found myself transfixed by the playing and presence of pianist Igor Levit in the Edward G. Pickman Hall at Longy School of Music on Wednesday night, as he made his Boston debut with a recital presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. The manner in which he sculpted the intensity, volume, and duration of every phrase was clearly deliberate and well practiced, yet gave the impression of a free state of flow. It was almost impossible to look away.
Tieless, in a black suit and white shirt, the European pianist seemed an extension of the Steinway onstage as he played, bending down over the keyboard and tilting his head back and forth. He spun out selections from Shostakovich’s “24 Preludes and Fugues” in delicate but resilient filaments of melody. In the final excerpt, a G-sharp-minor passacaglia, a bass line in slabs of octaves faded to a faint echo, and a sudden plunge into a fugue was as shocking as a splash of red paint on white marble.
Rzewski’s “Ballad No. 5” is a set of variations on an African-American prison work song, but the original material only shows in brief glimpses after its first appearance. Written with amorphous tonality and tempo, these variations follow an unpredictable path. And Levit improvised a sinister crossed-hands cadenza at the work’s midpoint that seamlessly tumbled back into Rzewski’s material. Between figures near the end of the piece, he clinked a chain on a nearby stool, his right hand trembling as he picked it up and dropped it. When at one point it slid off the stool, he cracked a dry smile at the audience and continued rattling it on the floor as if he had meant to do so all along.
Levit knows every nook and cranny of Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations,” which he recorded for his 2015 Sony release “Bach, Beethoven, Rzewski” and played from memory for this concert. After the simple initial theme, which he whirled through with diabolical mischief, he paced himself like a marathon runner, rolling along at a determined clip in faster movements, but visibly taking care not to wear himself out. Before one Presto movement, he slowly lifted his hands from the keyboard, flexing and curling his fingers in a thick silence. Each movement had a distinct personality, and an exquisite surprise awaited with every second; here a soft resolution where a crash was expected, there a subtle gear shift. The lightning-fast fugue of the penultimate movement served as the metaphorical sprint down Boylston Street, never glancing back until it crossed the finish line with two ringing major chords. The final minuet floated along, weary but bright-eyed, as one only can when one has given all one has and realized there’s still a little more left.
Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. At Edward G. Pickman Hall, Longy School of Music, Jan. 8Zoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.