At Lucerne: Igor Levit and the Art of Improvisation


The pianist Igor Levit was Russian born, raised in and musically educated in Germany. At 37 he tours the world as a recitalist and soloist with most of the major orchestras of the world. At home in Berlin and at the drop of an interview he is also a liberal/progressive activist. This year he applied his skills to his second annual Piano Fest in Lucerne, Switzerland during five concerts in four days; I was thrilled to be there. The unstated theme of the four days was improvisation, an art more associated with jazz than classical composition.

Improvisation has been around in classical music since the 16th century and was a regular part of performance in the 18th and 19th centuries for Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and their contemporaries. They were demonstrating not only their improvisational skills to each other but also showing off to their audiences and musical patrons. Bach’s “The Art of the Fugue,” a five-voice improvisation grew out of a visit Bach made to Frederick the Great of Prussia, who asked Bach for an improvisation. Bach created a three-voice improvisation that later grew to five voices that we now know as “The Art Of The Fugue.” Levit chose this work to open his recital.

Improvisation in classical music is a deceptive term. The implication is of a spontaneous, invented, form of performing, yet it has, like composed music, building blocks that are taught to young performers and budding composers.

The second half of Levit’s opening festival recital was far removed from improvisation: Beethoven’s 3rd symphony (Eroica). No orchestra, just a single Steinway Concert Grand on the KKL Concert Hall stage that can accommodate an orchestra of 80-100 that would normally play the Eroica.

Franz Liszt the virtuoso pianist and composer spent  some of the middle years of the 19th century transcribing all nine Beethoven symphonies for piano. As was characteristic of Liszt’s original compositions, the transcriptions were devilishly difficult to play. He is said to have liked to challenge his virtuosic skills. The irony is that Liszt may never have played any of them, and we don’t know why. Some music historians suggest that in performing and traveling around Europe Liszt may indeed have played one or more of his Beethoven symphonic transcriptions.

Liszt revolutionized piano performance as the first person to play solo on stage without an orchestra. He created sensations wherever he played as a virtuoso. Audiences clamored to hear him and even to touch him.  Liszt was the first pianist to play to audiences of thousands in large halls. He was an early classical version of a rock star. The German poet Heinrich Heine coined a word for the scene at a Liszt concert: “Lisztomania.”

Musicologist Dr. Alan Walker called the Liszt’s transcriptions “arguably the greatest work of transcription ever completed in the history of music.” The preconcert lecturer in Lucerne suggested that the performance we were about to hear would make us forget about the orchestra. To my ears she turned out to be right. If you knew the Eroica as a symphony you didn’t miss the orchestra. The wonder of the Liszt transcriptions are that they include all the instruments in the orchestra into the 88 keys of the piano and ten fingers of the performer.

This performance matched Levit’s focus and concentration, and the audience. I didn’t hear a single cough. The acoustics reflected Levit’s articulation and dynamic range that gave the symphony life.

The third of the five Piano Festival concerts sprang from Levit’s fertile imagination in the person of Danger Dan (Daniel Pongratz), a German rapper who is a member of a hip hop group known as the Antilopen (Antilope) Gang as well as a solo rapper. This was socially conscious and satirical rap aimed at the woke, conservatives, antisemites, and neo Nazis. Danger Dan brought a different audience into the KKL concert hall. Think miniature version of a Taylor Swift concert without the pyrotechnics. A full hall of mostly Gen Z who knew the lyrics enthusiastically made themselves part of the performance. Danger Dan seemed flattered and bemused finding himself in the middle of a classical Piano Fest; he pointed out in rap that he was likely the worst pianist who ever played on the KKL stage.

The final two concerts were a contrast in style and tradition. A duo recital with Igor Levit and one of his proteges, Lukas Sternath, a 23-year-old Viennese born pianist.  Sternath started his musical life in the Vienna Boys’ Choir and moved simultaneously to the piano where his talent brought him to Levit and Andras Schiff as teachers and mentors. The program of Brahms, Shubert, and Schumann was all from the score and a breather from improvisations that came back for the final concert.

“Johanna Summer maneuvers in the undiscovered worlds between jazz and classical music,” wrote the Frankfurter Algemeine.  Summer is a German pianist in her early 20s, another protégé of Igor Levit. At the first Piano Fest in 2023 her late night recital included traditional classical repertoire in the first half. Her second half she turned to her version of the tradition of improvisation in a performance that harkened back to the composers of the 18th and 19th centuries. She asked the audience to call out composers they liked or who might challenge her skills.

At the first “Bach” she launched into a spontaneous composition that did more than more than mimic the Baroque. This was spontaneous Bach, nuanced, contrapuntal, with original ornamentation; and not just a quick excerpt. She improvised/composed a coherent piece that had a beginning, middle, and end. I asked a pianist friend what he thought of Summer’s improvisations. “Unique” was the first word verdict, followed by “I have never heard anything like this before.”

Summer is better known in Europe as a jazz pianist and has a jazz trio of her own as well as a growing discography. Joachim Kühn, a renowned German jazz pianist, describes Johanna Summer’s music as full of imagination and without category.” The Süddeutsche Zeitung considers her work “a small sensation.”

The next scene was two Steinways facing each other, Lukas Sternath to the left and Johanna Summer to the right. There was no program, so Summer did not know what Sternath would play. He launched into Ravel. Summer sat at her bench, slightly hunched forward with the palms of her hands on her knees listening. An occasional half smile played across her face as the fluid Ravel filled the hall. Summer didn’t move but you could feel her focus. I could only imagine what musical wheels were turning in her mind.

As the Ravel was coming to a soft conclusion, Summer raised one finger and played a single note that kept the Ravel alive in key, in dynamic, and in tempo. Ravel continued, improvised but indistinguishable musically from the score that Sternath had concluded. Ravel’s composition had ended; and yet it continued on the second piano. Debussy followed in an equally seamless performance between the score and the improvisation that followed.

Live performance is unique and fleeting. This took the performance art one step beyond: live composition born of improvisation. Summers says that she doesn’t transcribe her improvisations; they are a one-off, meant to be that, a unique experience.

Peter Herford
Peter Herford
The Seattle-based author has many years of experience in national broadcast news, including years teaching journalism in mainland China.


  1. Actually Bach’s improvisation on a theme by Frederick the Great led to A Musical Offering, not The Art of the Fugue.


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