Deeply Satisfying Beethoven from Julia Fischer and Igor Levit

09/07/2016

Beethoven: Julia Fischer (violin), Igor Levit (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 6.7.2016. (MB)

Beethoven, Violin Sonata no.9 in A major, op.47, ‘Kreutzer’; Violin Sonata no.10 in G major, op.96

How I wish I had been able to attend the earlier two concerts in this series of three, in which Julia Fischer and Igor Levit performed all ten of Beethoven’s violin sonatas – or rather, sonatas for piano and violin, as any self-respecting pianist will tell you. On the basis of this, the final concert, it would have been a series to remember. Hänsel and Gretel at the Royal College of Music – it was so good, I saw it twice – intervened however, and without the mediæval saint’s gift of bilocation, I had to make, as a less than sainted sometime Prime Minister once put it, ‘tough choices’.

First, then, was the Kreutzer Sonata. Beethoven famously described it in his sketchbook as having been ‘written in a very concertante style, almost like that of a concerto’. To which instrument, though, was he referring? Perhaps to both? He was not, of course, but that is how, in a very positive sense, it sometimes sounded here, without losing anything of its virtues as chamber music. Fischer’s violin playing married to near-perfection bracing physicality – she is one of those players from whom one really can feel the bow touch, and rather more than merely touch, the strings – with an irreproachable intellectual grasp and communication of the music. Not that there was any showmanship to her playing, but this was a performance – which crucially, and which so many Beethoven performances fail to do – communicated, indeed had us experience the formal dynamism of the work. So too did Igor Levit, surely one of the finest pianists of our age even at this stage in his career. (I do not, I hasten to add, make such claims lightly.)  Moreover, the balance between horizontal and vertical concerns, more, although far from exclusively, a matter for the pianist, never failed to satisfy, indeed, in true Beethovenian fashion, to bludgeon, if with charm as well as violence, itself into the consciousness. The first movement introduction was as full of expectancy as any to a symphony by Haydn or Beethoven, the Presto proper emerging from it in the way that, since Beethoven and Romanticism, we have felt compelled to call ‘organic’. There was fury, yes, but never was the music harried. Far too many players – often, still more, conductors – seem to equate ‘excitement’ with playing in as fast and unyielding manner as possible; Fischer and Levit showed far greater maturity, in every sense.

Beethoven perhaps made even more of a revolutionary impact upon variation forms than upon sonata forms. (Perhaps that is an exaggeration, but consideration of the Diabelli Variations suggest that it might not be.) And yet, in the slow movement, we heard, if nothing so banal as mere relaxation, then the sublimity of music that happily, even gratefully, acknowledges its Classical predecessors as much as, perhaps more than, the Romantic future. There was urgency, not in the sense of playing everything, or indeed anything too fast, but founded upon the harmony: Levit’s commanding caress of the bass line had sometimes to be heard to be believed. But Fischer too understood how much the ever-changing relationship between violin and piano contributes to harmonic motion. Melody and its variation should not be, were never, forgotten, but they were inconceivable without harmony – which is just as it should be. The finale grabbed one by the scruff of the neck, and again made one listen; every note could be heard, without that tending to the slightest of pedantry. Rather, it made one marvel anew at Beethoven’s inspiration.

The performance of the G major Sonata, op.96, was every bit as fine. It is a remarkable work, perhaps still more remarkable, although far less popular, than the Kreutzer. I think of it as inhabiting a similar world to the Eighth Symphony, another work unable to escape, quite unjustly, the shadow of its predecessor. (Beethoven is said to have accounted for that by the Eighth being ‘so much better’ than the Seventh.) One must certainly listen intently and without prejudice, willing to hear what Beethoven writes rather than what one thinks he might have written. Fischer’s opening trill was not only a thing of beauty in itself; it was, even before we heard the rest, clearly a harbinger. Not only did the first group emerge from it, one had a sense, in performance, that everything else did too. Levit’s voicing of chords was quite magical; I had a sense that, as Donald Tovey once wrote of Liszt, it would have been impossible for him not to make a beautiful sound at the piano. So often a progression, a phrase, would seem to look to the starry skies of the Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos. And again, one heard, experienced, as well as simply knowing intellectually, the fundamental (as it were) role of harmony. Levit can make quite a noise with the piano: there is certainly no authenticism here, from either pianist or his Steinway Model D. But, as with Fischer, it is never for show. The slow movement and scherzo both assumed their own character, motivic working properly generative, and complemented, challenged each other as that truly extraordinary transition – as concise and as imbued with meaning as anything in Webern – demands. One might say much the same about the relationship between the scherzo itself and its trio, the magic of the former’s turn to the major relished without exaggeration. What I said about variation form in the Kreutzer surely applies still more so to the finale here. That was certainly what I felt after listening to this performance. Fischer and Levit proved expert guides to the intertwined paths of melody and harmony, not just within variations, but still more so between them, so that unity was as unquestionable as it would have been in a sonata form movement. Interruptions during the final variation – above all, the fugal writing, which reminded one of Levit’s prowess in Bach – pointed towards what we generally consider ‘late’ Beethoven, but the character of movement and sonata as a whole sounded entirely its own, inseparable from performance.

Mark Berry

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