Wagner’s iconic opera Tristan and Isolde—a four-hour emotional onslaught that explores love, death, and betrayal—is, as is typical of the German composer’s music, richly textured. The original score demands a symphony orchestra on a scale that was extraordinary for the period. It is not, then, an obvious work for piano, an instrument that, though capable of playing multiple melodies simultaneously, is ultimately limited to 88 notes. But the parameters are part of the attraction: 19th-century composers such as Liszt couldn’t wait to capture the excitement of the opera at the keyboard. The work has continued to inspire an array of arrangements, several of which feature on Igor Levit’s album Tristan. “There is a wide variety of transcriptions,” Levit tells Apple Music. “There are some that are very entertaining, some that are closer to the original work, and some that are extremely virtuosic.” Zoltán Kocsis’ version of the opera’s Prelude falls into this latter category, its unassuming opening spilling into a dazzling climax, written on multiple staves. Others, such as Hans Werner Henze’s orchestral work Tristan, focus on the darker side of Wagner's harmonic language, reimagining a dramatic landscape for orchestra and piano, with Franz Welser-Möst here conducting Levit and the Gewandhaus Orchestra. Early transcriptions also had a more utilitarian function. In an era before recordings, a piano reduction was a way of reliving the music heard in the opera house, particularly important when productions were not widely accessible. “The world was a much smaller place when Tristan and Isolde was first staged,” says Levit. “It was difficult to travel. And so, the transcription made it possible to share music with those who would not have heard the original.” The rapid development of the newly invented piano during that period also contributed to the popularity of the form. Liszt, the original celebrity pianist, allowed his imagination to run wild—his own Wagner transcriptions are, says Levit, “uplifting, entertaining, and very hard.” While Levit doesn’t include Liszt’s transcription of the final, climactic “Liebestod” from Tristan, he opens and closes the album with two works by the composer, the Liebestraum No. 3 and “Harmonies du soir” from the Transcendental Études. These works reveal Liszt’s idiomatic writing for the piano, each packed with evocative melodies that balance finely spun phrases with expansive Romanticism. “They are very poetic,” reflects Levit. The Liebestraum is a gorgeous love letter to the piano, with a deeply resonant theme and Chopin-like ascension across the keyboard. The project reveals Levit’s curious and creative side, something that is felt in the pianist’s Tristan programming. A key work on the album is Ronald Stevenson’s transcription of the “Adagio” from Mahler's Symphony No. 10, a rarity of the piano repertoire, the score of which Levit was loaned by friends of the late Scottish composer. Stevenson is best-known for his Passacaglia on DSCH, a ferociously complicated work that is rarely scaled. Levit’s recent recording of it showed him to be one of Stevenson’s greatest advocates, and his version of the Mahler transcription is equally impressive. “This piece really means a great deal to me,” says Levit. “It fits the Tristan idea of love, loss, fear, and paranoia. For me, the most important moment of the Tristan story is during Act II, with the desire of death. All the important action happens at night. That’s a key theme through this album: a dreamlike darkness.” Like Levit’s previous albums, such as Life—a highly personal collection inspired by the pianist’s experience of bereavement—Tristan is an eclectic, thoughtful recording. “The Liebestraum sets the tone for the entire program,” muses Levit. “I wanted it to be a sort of overture. And then, at the end, the ‘Harmonies du soir’ serves as an amen. The pieces bookend demanding, emotional, and existential music.” It is the perfect soundtrack to the turmoil we face today. But there’s closure too. “There's an exhalation at the end,” says Levit. This is a recording that is best experienced from start to finish, recommends Levit, although, he adds, “I don’t want to be prescriptive. I am eternally grateful to everyone who listens to me.”

Liebestraum No. 3 in A-Flat Major, S. 541/3
Tristan und Isolde
Symphony No. 10
Transcendental Études, S. 139

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