Tackling a Supreme Pianistic Challenge
Beethoven: Beth Levin (piano), Benjamin Franklin Hall, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 19.11.2014 (BJ)
Beethoven: Piano Sonata in E major, Op. 109; Piano Sonata in in A-flat major, Op. 110; Piano Sonata in C minor, Op. 111
Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas constitute a veritable Everest of the classical pianistic repertoire, rivaled only by Schubert’s corresponding final triptych. Anyone prepared to tackle them publicly in a single evening deserves respectful consideration, and I would always lean over backwards in endeavoring to muster a positive response to such an epic undertaking.
Beth Levin is a gracious presence on stage. Her devotion to these three works was evident at this Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital, and it was clear also that her performances carried sufficient conviction to earn such a response from some members of the audience. I fear, however, that I was unable to lean over far enough backwards to enjoy much of what I heard.
In assessing the sound a pianist makes, a critic must always allow for the part the actual instrument plays in determining that sound. But Ms. Levin was playing the same Steinway from which, just a month ago, Gilbert Kalish drew ravishing sonorities in scaling another more modern pianistic peak—Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata—and so I cannot help holding her responsible for the pervasively undernourished and often harshly tinny sounds that emerged from under her fingers. I should perhaps say instead from under her arms, because, where some pianists caress the keyboard, in any dynamic above mezzo-forte this pianist positively hammered it, clearly using the full weight of lifted forearms in her effort to cope with Beethoven’s often saturated textures.
If that had been my only complaint, a reasonably positive critical judgement might still have been possible, for, after all, how the music goes may be termed just as important as how it sounds. But there was something distractingly hesitant about Ms. Levin’s rhythm, especially in slow movements. Here, when the dynamic was soft (as in the variation themes of both the E-major and the C-minor Sonatas), I found myself waiting impatiently for the next note to arrive, as if she herself were anxiously preparing in an attempt not to strike the key too hard. There is a clear line of demarcation between free rhythm and unstable rhythm—remember Heinrich Neuhaus’s observation about his celebrated pupil Sviatoslav Richter: “his rhythm is at the same time perfectly strict and perfectly free”—and I am afraid that, in both slow and fast music, Ms. Levin lives on the wrong side of that line.
Rhythm was a different kind of problem at the start of the C-minor Sonata, where, perhaps because of the technical problem posed by the wide leap between the first two notes, the initial 32nd-note of the introduction’s theme was longer each time than the third note, whereas the two ought surely to be of the same length. The exposition repeat was omitted in this performance, which was consistent with the wholesale disregard of repeats in Ms. Levin’s recording of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations (and I confess to being quite unable to comprehend the mind-set of a musician who, having decided to perform that work, passes up the opportunity to demonstrate her artistry in embellishing the second-time passages that are a crucial and essential element in its formal design). And at the end, which I once heard a commentator describe eloquently as “depositing us gently on the edge of eternity,” the expressive distinction between the descending 32nd-note scales of the penultimate measure and the more sustained figures of the three die-away measures that end the work, disappeared in the pianist’s insufficiently differentiated treatment.
So much beauty in the music, and so little in these performances!