A Stunning Beethoven Recital by Julia Fischer and Igor Levit

05/07/2016

Beethoven: Julia Fischer (violin); Igor Levit (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 4.7.2016. (CC)

Beethoven, Sonatas: Op. 12: No. 1 in D; No. 2 in A; No. 3 in E flat; A minor, Op. 23

This concert was preceded by a fascinating discussion between Fischer, Levit and journalist/author, Annette Morreau. Plenty of prescient questions were answered, including Fischer’s chosen instrument (a Guadagnini), and which were the two performers’ preferred recorded versions of the Beethoven violin and piano sonatas (Kreisler/Rupp in Op. 12/2 slow movement and Menuhin/Kempff for Fischer; and Busch/Serkin’s “Kreutzer” for Levit).

The sold-out performance itself was stunning. This cycle (which spans three consecutive days) is part of a tour that includes the Prinzregententheater Munich, the Tonhalle Zurich and the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris. Fischer plays from memory and, as became obvious from the off, her tone is absolutely beautiful. Fischer and Levit seemed to be at pains to show just how sophisticated these works are, as well as revelling in the more daring writing – a passage in the first movement of Op. 12/1 for just piano right-hand and violin, for example, or some lovely exploratory passages in the first movement development). The second movement of Op. 12/1 comprises a set of variations, the only set in the cycle apart from that in the “Kreutzer”, and it became obvious here that this was a meeting of equals (Fischer seemed the more settled of the two in the first movement). The lively finale, with its occasional touch of grit, was a joy, the off-beat accents so characteristic of Beethoven in gruff-humour an absolute joy.

Fischer had singled out the slow movement of the A major Sonata, Op. 12/2 for special mention in the pre-concert talk, and it is easy to hear why anyone can hold affection for this piece. As a whole, the sonata is witty and delightful; both players seemed to have a ball. Those very rapid passages in the first movement for both instruments that can so easily degenerate into a scramble were perfectly dealt with; Fischer’s stopping in the central Andante, più tosto allegretto matched Levit’s eloquence. The wistful simplicity of the finale was perfectly captured by virtue of the players’ superb communication.

An interval separated Op. 12/2 from the final sonata of the Op. 12 set, the E flat major. The first movement is remarkably challenging for both players; Fischer’s beautiful tone and impeccable intonation was only part of the equation. She was wonderfully characterful, also. The highly dramatic first movement development section found both players on top form: some of it was almost fierce. To balance that ferocity, the central Adagio con molto espressione was a thing of beauty, the long cantabile violin melody against piano left-hand staccato gestures and right-hand chords a particularly memorable moment; it was only left to the jaunty finale to round things off in a bouncy fashion.

Finally, we heard the intriguing Sonata in A minor, Op. 23. The Op. 12 sonatas date from 1797/98; this one dates from 1800. The A minor is a sophisticated work; the opening Presto benefitted enormously from the sense of urgency injected by Fischer and Levit, while the fugatos of the central Andante scherzoso, più allegretto worked perfectly, not least because of Levit’s impeccable left-hand trills. The finale was a fitting way to close; it was a virtuoso performance from both players. How I wish I could have got to the remaining two recitals …

Colin Clarke

This recital was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available via their streaming service for a month.

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