Igor Levit on Fred Hersch: ‘He’s an absolute idol’

Felix Broede/Sony Classical

Pianists from two different realms of the music world, Igor Levit and Fred Hersch have formed a mutual admiration society. 

"I feel like I've known you forever, even though it's only been a few years," said the Russian-German Levit of his American friend and jazz pianist-composer Hersch in a video interview produced by Musical America. "We have so much in common in the way we think."

So when the rock group Metallica asked Levit to participate in "Blacklist" (2021), a tribute project celebrating the 30th anniversary of the band's "The Black Album," the pianist knew he wanted Hersch involved as well. 

Levit, who will perform Jan. 16 in an SCP Piano recital, asked Hersch to transcribe “Nothing Else Matters” from the 1991 album (originally titled "Metallica," but known by its nickname due to its packaging). "The moment I got the invitation to take part in this project was the moment where my gut feeling told me I had to call Fred Hersch," said Levit in an interview with metallica.com. "Now Fred is not only a friend, but I believe one of the very, very greatest pianists, musicians of our time. I called Fred because I wanted to bring something, let’s say rhapsodic, out of that song. And he really made an incredible thing out of it: rhapsodic plus fairy-tale-like storytelling manner. And I think it’s kind of closer to what I always feel when I hear the song in a very timeless and warm, heartfelt way."

Others participating in "Blacklist," released in September, run the gamut from rock (My Morning Jacket, Dave Gahan, Weezer) to Latin (Juanes, J. Balvin, Mon Laferte) to pop (Miley Cyrus, Elton John) to roots music (Jason Isbell, Phoebe Bridgers, Chris Stapleton).

Now 34, Levit told the music site ADN that he first encountered Metallica's music when he was 13 years old, after he moved to Germany in 1995 with his family. "I met Metallica when I was very young, thanks to Kirk Hammett [the band's lead guitarist and songwriter]. 'The Black Album' is a masterpiece, and the band means a lot to me." For "Blacklist," Levit admits that he "could have recorded any of the songs, but 'Nothing Else Matters' really fits the way I wanted to use the piano. It's a very melodic piece. So the decision was simple.”

For his current recital tour, Levit commissioned a work from Hersch, Variations on a Folk Song (which in Chicago will be heard alongside Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109, a transcription of Wagner's Prelude from Tristan and Isolde and Lizst's Sonata in B Minor). 

He remains in awe of Hersch's improvisatory skills, equally evident on Variations on a Folk Song and "Nothing Else Matters." "I think he transformed it into a very free pianistic fantasy," said Levit of Hersch's arrangement. "It's like playing Miles Davis."

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