Tackling a Supreme Pianistic Challenge

21/11/2014

  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!

Bernard Jacobson

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Comments

Comments are closed.

Recent Reviews

MW

Facebook-button-1

Season Previews

__________________________________
  • NEW! Royal Opera House Cinema Festival Begins Monday 3 December in State-of-the-Art Linbury Theatre __________________________________
  • NEW! English National Ballet at the London Coliseum 13 December 2018 – 20 January 2019 __________________________________
  • NEW! Looking Ahead to the 2019 Lucerne Festivals __________________________________
  • NEW! Sándor Végh Memorial Concerts 2019 __________________________________
  • NEW! Bampton Classical Opera Perform Amahl and the Night Visitors in December __________________________________
  • NEW! Opera Holland Park’s 2019 Season __________________________________
  • NEW! The Met: Live in HD in 2018/19 __________________________________
  • NEW! The Royal Opera House’s Exciting 2018/19 Cinema Season __________________________________
  • UPDATED! Zurich Opera in 2018/2019 and Beyond __________________________________
  • NEW! Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
 in 2018/2019 __________________________________
  • NEW! Edinburgh Sunday International Concerts Series in 2018/19 __________________________________
  • NEW! Salzburg Whitsun Festival 7 – 10 June 2019 __________________________________
  • NEW! Bolshoi Ballet 2018/19 UK Cinema Season __________________________________
  • NEW! 2018-2019 Geneva Grand Theâtre Season __________________________________
  • NEW! 2018/19 Hallé Season in Manchester __________________________________
  • NEW! 2018/19 Tonhalle Orchestra Zürich __________________________________
  • NEW! 2018/19 CBSO at Symphony Hall, Birmingham __________________________________
  • Subscribe to Review Summary Newsletter

    Reviews by Reviewer

    News and Featured Articles

    __________________________________
  • NEW! CONDUCTOR ELIM CHAN IN CONVERSATION WITH GREGOR TASSIE __________________________________
  • NEW! Iain Farrington’s Mahler Piano Series was an Extraordinary Marathon __________________________________
  • NEW! Vancouver New Music’s Quartetti Festival: Recharging the Contemporary String Quartet __________________________________
  • NEW! SOPRANO ELENA MOȘUC IN CONVERSATION WITH CASEY CREEL __________________________________
  • NEW! THE PIANIST ANGELA HEWITT IN CONVERSATION WITH GREGOR TASSIE __________________________________
  • R.I.P. Montserrat Caballé (1933 – 2018): A Personal Tribute by Jack Buckley __________________________________
  • NEW! The Future of Opera is Theatre: An Essay by Casey Creel __________________________________
  • NEW! Jacqui and David Morris’s New Documentary Film Nureyev Celebrates a Unique Man and Dancer __________________________________
  • NEW! MAESTRO RICCARDO FRIZZA IN CONVERSATION WITH MARGARIDA MOTA-BULL __________________________________
  • NEW! THE GESUALDO SIX IN CONVERSATION WITH GEOFFREY NEWMAN __________________________________
  • NEW! A Q&A WITH GERMAN SOPRANO PETRA LANG __________________________________
  • NEW! TENOR NICHOLAS PHAN IN CONVERSATION WITH CHRISTOPHER SALLON __________________________________
  • NEW! THE PIANIST GEORGE HARLIONO IN CONVERSATION WITH GREGOR TASSIE __________________________________
  • NEW! HOW TO CONTACT SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL __________________________________
  • Search S&H

    Archives by Week

    Archives by Month