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Review: Igor Levit at Birmingham Town Hall

The Russian pianist alternately charmed, beguiled, hammered and finally finessed into submission Frederic Rzewski's epic  The People United Will Never Be Defeated.

He played spotlit surrounded on four sides by a hushed and fascinated audience – like a green baize gladiator in the world snooker championships.

Indeed it was gladiatorial as the Russian pianist alternately charmed, beguiled, hammered and finally finessed into submission Frederic Rzewski's epic The People United Will Never Be Defeated.

Levit has recently recorded it along with Bach's Goldberg Variations and Beethoven's Diabelli Variations. It doesn't have their musical substance but it's a flamboyant, hugely demanding yet audience-friendly showpiece.

The intimate and intensely involving in-the-round layout was a huge success – when did we last get a standing ovation for a piano recital at the Town Hall? So why aren't more solo and chamber music recitals presented this way?

In 1975 the American composer took the rousing and catchy Chilean workers' anthem – sung in protest at the ruling military junta – as the subject for 36 variations lasting around an hour.

The soloist needs immense versatility as the eclectic Rzewski channels diverse composers from Bach and Bartok to Prokofiev and Oscar Peterson – a jazzy nightclub variation – and Levit switched styles seamlessly.

There's even a bit of whistling and lid-slamming required, a nod to '60s avant-garde musical happenings perhaps – which raised a nostalgic smile from older audience members.

Levit's performance of Beethoven's Tempest piano sonata (Op. 31 No.2 in D minor) was one of extremes. Quiet passages were just on the threshold of audibility, bass notes thunderous, the finale unusually quick – but Levit captured the essence of this emotionally ambiguous and disturbing work.

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