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Igor Levit plays Goldberg Variations@Park Avenue Armory / The New Yorker

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In the middle of December, the city experienced some peculiar pianist behavior. At the Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory, the fast-rising Russian-German pianist Igor Levit played the "Goldberg Variations" on a gradually rotating platform, as part of a classical-music installation designed by the artist Marina Abramović. At Carnegie Hall, the established virtuoso Evgeny Kissin intermingled pieces by early-twentieth-century Jewish composers with his own dramatic recitations of Yiddish-language poems by I. L. Peretz. These departures from routine were welcome. The recital format has become so robotically predictable that we tend to forget its origins in the flamboyant self-display of Paganini and Liszt. The very idea of a piano "recital," introduced by Liszt in 1840, took inspiration from stage monologues and poetry readings.

The "Goldberg" project seems to have arisen from a historical misunderstanding. In an interview printed in the program book, Abramović declares that "classical-music concerts have always been the same for centuries." In fact, as accounts of Liszt's recitals show, they have undergone enormous changes in the past hundred and fifty years. What had been a rather unruly affair, with listeners swooning as musicians swanned about, became an ostentatiously becalmed ritual. Abramović, a performance-art celebrity who has lately been concerned with countering digital-age distractions, did nothing to disrupt this latter-day norm; indeed, she further sacralized the format. Listeners were told to place electronic devices in a locker, take a seat in the Drill Hall, and meditate in silence for more than half an hour while the automated platform containing Levit and his piano glided to the middle of the space. Noise-cancelling headphones were provided for the purpose of "plunging audience members into a sonically neutral and calming state."

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