When it was – finally – over, Igor Levitt wrote on Twitter that he was "ready. Done. Happy. Thankful. And something high." For 15 hours and 29 minutes, the brilliant pianist had played the same piece over and over again, Eric Satie's "Vexations" – in English "torture". The concert, which was streamed live over the Internet, began in the early Saturday afternoon and the final chord sounded in the early Sunday morning.
Levitt played a total of 840 repetitions of the "Vexations" during this time. This is what Satie intended when he composed the piece in 1893. "In order to play this motif 840 times in a row, it would be advisable to prepare yourself beforehand in deep silence and complete immobility," the composer wrote at the beginning of his score, which fits on one page.
Levit's progress in his piano marathon was accordingly indicated on a stack of paper that was initially piled neatly on his grand piano, one sheet for each of the 840 repetitions. After each run, he pulled one of them to one side and dropped it on the floor, which at the end was covered by a sea of sheet music.
With the action, he wants to point out the suffering of the musicians who have no opportunities to perform in the corona crisis, Levit explained earlier. In an interview with SPIEGEL, the artist said that in this crisis he came to mind again in this work, "which corresponds to my inner feeling in its monotony, relentlessness and almost empty content."
It is still controversial whether Satie meant his composition seriously or just wanted to make a joke. Experts describe the sequence of 17 chords as characterized by boredom. The short piece has no tension arc, no opposite voice, only those 17 chords that Satie wanted to hear played "very slowly". For Igor Levit, however, the composition also had a practical advantage: in large parts it can be played with one hand, only with the fingers of the left hand. So he had the right one free, for example to file sheet music.
It was not until 1963 that the play was first performed in its entirety, i.e. with the entire 840 repetitions noted by Satie. The composer John Cage organized the performance in New York at the time. However, he let the piece be played by a team of ten, alternating pianists. The performance lasted more than 18 hours. In 1967, the play was first played in its entirety by a single artist, Richard Toop.
In the recording of Levit's performance,, you can clearly see how exhaustion affects him over the course of the fifteen and a half hours. On a table next to the piano you can see bananas, dates and tomatoes, which he hardly seems to touch. Now and then someone brings him an espresso. The live broadcast was briefly interrupted several times so that Levitt could eat something or go to the toilet.
As exhausted as he was at the end, Levitt might have been satisfied, even though he probably went through the composition a little rushed in the composer's sense. In some publications it can be read that the composer, with his instruction to play the piece "very slowly", meant that it should take a full 28 hours in the end. But this is speculation, because there is apparently no such concrete indication of the playing time from Satie himself.
Igor Levit, born in Russia, is considered one of the most important pianists of his generation. At the age of six he gave his first piano concerto. He made headlines when he returned the Echo Klassik awarded to him in 2014 in protest against the awards of the rappers Kollegah and Farid Bang ().