n March 10th, the German pianist Igor Levit played Beethoven’s Third and Fifth Piano Concertos at the Elbphilharmonie, the hulking concert complex in Hamburg. It was his thirty-third birthday and, it turned out, his last public concert for many weeks. The next day, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, delivered a dire warning about the scope of the looming coronavirus pandemic, and performance spaces began closing across the country. At the time, Levit had a full schedule before him. He had recently issued a boxed-set recording of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas, and was playing Beethoven cycles in several European cities. He was also preparing to tackle an arcane colossus of the piano literature—the seventy-minute Piano Concerto by the early-twentieth-century composer-virtuoso Ferruccio Busoni, a hero of his.
“That next day, the eleventh, was kind of a shock day,” Levit told me recently, in a video call from his apartment, in Berlin. “On the twelfth, I was shopping in a grocery store, and I had this thought: What if I live-streamed a gig?” He peered into his phone with a grin. He is a trim young man with sharp features, a high Mahlerian hairline, and a thin growth of beard. He was wearing a T-shirt that read “Love Music Hate Racism.” He speaks rapidly and incisively, his English nearly as good as his German. Sometimes he seems more mature than his years, poised and oracular; at others, he comes across as an antic, restless member of his digital-native generation.
Levit went on, “When I got home, I did what I usually do, which is to throw a thought into the public arena without thinking about any consequences. I went on Twitter and said, ‘O.K., I’m going to play for you guys tonight at my place.’ After having tweeted that, I realized, Hang on—I’ve never streamed anything, I know shit about streaming, I don’t even know if Twitter allows thirty minutes of streaming, I have no camera stand. I had a total panic. I was sending messages to friends: ‘Do you know how streaming works?’ And this tweet was already out there. It was a catastrophe. I ran to the last electronics store that was still open, and got some stuff for twenty-four euros.”
I saw Levit’s tweet and tuned in. The setting was familiar, because I had met with him there the previous summer. He lives in a spacious, airy, sparely decorated apartment in the Mitte neighborhood of Berlin, with plate-glass windows overlooking a park. His instrument is a 1923 Steinway B that once belonged to the great Swiss pianist Edwin Fischer. At 7 p.m., Levit pressed the Record button on his smartphone and trotted in front of his newly acquired home-Webcasting equipment, dressed casually in a black-and-gray pullover shirt and black pants. He gave a brief introduction, in German and English: “It’s a sad time, it’s a weird time, but acting is better than doing nothing. Let’s bring the house concert into the twenty-first century.” He then tore into Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata, in a fashion typical of him—precipitate, purposeful, intricately nuanced. It was an imposing structure aglow with feeling.