The fixation on Levit’s extramusical activities tends to overlook the fact that music is always churning through his mind, even when he seems preoccupied with other matters. As I met with him during the past year, I was most struck by his staggering command of centuries of repertory, whether or not a work is written for his instrument. Rehearsing Beethoven’s “Les Adieux” before a recital, he noticed that one passage resembled a phrase in Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung,” and began playing the opera from memory. Another time, he tried out a piano piece by the nineteenth-century French maverick Charles-Valentin Alkan, then segued into a sonorous approximation of the Adagio of Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony. He is just as prone to break into Henry Mancini, Nina Simone, or the Fred Hersch arrangement of Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes.” He is a completely musical animal, albeit an alert and worldly one.
Levit was born in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, in 1987, and moved to Germany with his family when he was eight. His father, Simon, is a construction engineer; his mother, Elena, is a pianist and a pedagogue, specializing in children’s musical education. The family is Jewish, though not particularly religious. “My parents simply wanted a better life—a better education for my sister and for myself, a better perspective for themselves,” Levit told me. They settled in Hannover, the capital of the state of Lower Saxony.
He has few memories of Russia. “My first encounter with Germany and the German language was, in a way, so emotional, so enthusiastic, that everything before that disappeared,” Levit told me. “I said that I was going to learn to speak better German than any of my classmates. I speak Russian with my parents. But when I went back to Russia recently—for the first time in seventeen years—it felt very touristy.”
Germans love to debate the question “What is German?” In 2017, the scholar Dieter Borchmeyer published a best-selling thousand-page book with that title, arguing that German culture hangs in perpetual tension between expansively cosmopolitan and strictly nationalist definitions of identity. Levit firmly belongs to the cosmopolitan camp. On his Web site, he describes himself as “Citizen. European. Pianist.” Not until his early twenties did he feel his right to Germanness questioned. At an upper-crust dinner following a concert, he was shocked when a middle-aged lawyer said to him, “You must never forget that although you grew up in Germany and live in Germany, you belong to a population group that was intended not to live here anymore.” Levit was being told, in shockingly racist terms, that some people would always see him as an interloper. He knew then that the old ghosts of German hyper-nationalism and anti-Semitism could rise again, as indeed they have.
Levit began playing piano at the age of three, under his mother’s tutelage, and made his début a year later, with Beethoven’s “Ecossaise in G.” By his early teens, he was playing the Grieg Piano Concerto and other entry-level virtuoso fare. More atypically, he made a piano transcription of Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis.” He did not, however, become a touring prodigy after the fashion of Lang Lang, or, in a previous generation, Evgeny Kissin. After earning second prize at the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel Aviv, in 2005, he returned to his studies at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater, in Hannover. His mother has long taught there; he recently joined the faculty, which means that he can visit his family more often.
This relatively slow start allowed Levit to develop away from the spotlight, trying out repertory without facing outsized expectations. He also underwent a socialization process that many prodigies forgo. He was, in some ways, a normal high schooler, and, along with many of his German peers, developed a taste for American hip-hop. “I went around with my Walkman and pretty much knew every line of Eminem,” he said. “Black Star was also very big for me. My first real experience of under-the-skin politicization was this fearless, borderless storytelling about yourself.” A little later, he fell in love with the music of Thelonious Monk. “For the longest time, I wanted to be Monk, which was, of course, absurd, but it had a big, big influence on how I play the piano. That naked sound—no, not naked, but exposed, skeleton-like, oppositional. That is also Beethoven, for me.”
Some of Levit’s teachers discouraged his voracious musical appetites, but at the Hochschule he was fortunate to receive instruction from the Finnish pianist Matti Raekallio, who let him roam free. Raekallio, who now teaches at Juilliard, told me that having Levit as a student was like winning the lottery: “The so-called lessons with him were not really lessons, since there was nothing one could teach him about piano playing. Instead, they were conversations—about music, about life, about everything. I had never encountered such a natural curiosity, in which he had devoured everything and then wanted to know more.” Levit has a formidable technique, although maintaining it is not effortless. “Octaves are not really my friends,” he told me after a performance of the Brahms Second Concerto in Vienna, shaking his hands at his sides. He asserts himself through his grasp of musical architecture, his differentiation of moods, his urgency of expression. These qualities make him a superlative interpreter of Beethoven, whose power is always cumulative in effect.
Raekallio also led Levit toward the grand eccentrics in the piano firmament: the likes of Alkan, Busoni, Kaikhosru Sorabji, and Ronald Stevenson. The last two are twentieth-century British cult figures who specialized in scores of delirious complexity. As Levit explored this esoteric terrain, he developed an intense regard for the man who perhaps knows it better than anyone alive—the august Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin. “When I was a student, my single greatest hero was Marc,” Levit says. “Everything he recorded I had to learn. Now we are good friends, and sometimes play together.”
When Levit was sixteen, he came across Hamelin’s recording of “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!,” an hour-long work from 1975 by the radical-minded American composer Frederic Rzewski. By turns convulsively modernistic and brashly neo-Romantic, it consists of thirty-six variations on Sergio Ortega’s “El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido,” which became famous as a song of protest against the Chilean military dictatorship. Levit, whose commitment to leftist politics was deepening, found Rzewski’s e-mail address on the Internet and wrote him a fan letter. “And then, because I was sixteen, or whatever, I asked him if he would write a piece for me.” To Levit’s surprise, Rzewski responded that he would write something, for money. After persuading a local new-music group to pay for the commission, Levit became the dedicatee of the second book of Rzewski’s “Nanosonatas”—music of nervous brilliance that matched the pianist’s emerging personality.
An unlikely friendship developed between the accomplished young German and the legendarily contrarian older American, who has long railed against the mainstream classical-music business. In 2015, Levit played “The People United” at Wigmore Hall, the venerable London chamber-music venue, where Beethoven string quartets and Schubert piano sonatas are the more usual fare. Rzewski was in the audience, and afterward he went onstage to congratulate Levit. “He leaned in to hug me and rasped in my ear, ‘You’re a real motherfucker,’ ” Levit recalled. “I wasn’t sure how to take that at first. Eventually, I decided that it was the single greatest compliment I’ve ever received.”