An Enthralling Start to Igor Levit’s Beethoven Sonata Cycle


Beethoven: Igor Levit (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 28.9.2016. (MB)

Pianist Igor Levit

Igor Levit (c) Simon Jay Price

Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.1 in F minor, op.2 no.1; Piano Sonata no.12 in A-flat major, op.26; Piano Sonata no.25 in G major, op.79; Piano Sonata no.21 in C major, op.53, ‘Waldstein’

Even for a veteran, it must be an extraordinary thing to embark upon a ‘cycle’ – as it seems we now must call it – of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. It is difficult to believe that even Daniel Barenboim would undertake such a series lightly. Imagine, then, what it must be like to do so for the first time, and at the Wigmore Hall, no less. Igor Levit’s achievement is, then, all the more extraordinary, for, let there be no doubt about it, there was truly great Beethoven playing to be heard in this first instalment. Each of these four sonatas sounded reconsidered: not for the sake of it, but for the reason each and every performance of them should be. When inexhaustible music becomes exhausted, the fault does not lie with the music; when it is rejuvenated, the honours, as here, should be shared between composer and interpreter.

Mozart came to mind throughout the F minor Sonata, op.2 no.1. The first movement sounded, as I have never heard it before, as a crystal-clear response to Mozart’s C minor Sonata, KV 457. They are related keys, I suppose; nevertheless, it intrigued me that, throughout the work, and not just the movement, I heard so much in common, in response. For it was not really Mozart when one listened, it was the post-Mozartian Beethoven. There was, in that spirit, a fine sense of the exploratory to Levit’s performance. The precision of the young Pollini sounded as if it were married to the tonal warmth of an older school, to create something quite new. (Such comparisons are, in any case, at best mere approximations. Levit was Levit.) Another C minor comparison, this time in the future, also came to mind: the concision of the Fifth Symphony.

There was a sense of Mozart, or post-Mozart, to the second movement too: aria-like, also close to, again a response to, slow movements such as those to KV 457 and also KV 332/300k. It was ornate, yet simple, just as oriented to its goal as the first movement. Luxuriant yet honest, even plain-spoken, this was a Renaissance performance carved in Carrara marble. Direct yet variegated – all these Beethoven dialectics! – the minuet remained a minuet, just. Its trio seemed to speak of, or hint at, distinctly ‘late’ counterpoint. Mozart’s C minor Sonata again seemed to hover in the background of the finale, which also hinted at the parallel movement in the Pathétique. This was the controlled fury of a Classical Romantic, or perhaps of two: Beethoven and his pianist. Command of line was impeccable, but it was the dramatic use to which that command was put that was most remarkable of all. The ending spoke with Beethovenian gruffness; neither here nor anywhere else would there be grandstanding.

And so, to the relative major, for the A-flat major Sonata, op.26. Again, from the first note, one heard a near ideal (not that there is only one way!) combination of precision and warmth, close to and yet quite different from Schubert. Haydn, rather than Mozart, came to mind as a forerunner, in particular the late F minor/major Variations. Through the instrumental lyricism of the first variation, the deadpan humour of the second, we moved to an almost imperceptibly moulded pathos in the third, following on, never merely negating. There was something of the gawkiness of a hesitant adolescent in the fourth variation, after which Beethoven could finally strain towards, glimpse, indeed grasp, sublimity. There followed a scherzo that could be by none other; Levit despatched it with lightness and fury. Its trio relaxed in well-judged fashion indeed. The Funeral March resounded with stark, spacious dignity and gravity. Its drama was that of the tonal universe itself, its future as much that of Berlioz as Chopin, of Wagner as Liszt. The finale offered a scurrying contrast and surprise, even if one ‘knew’. Further surprises proved more delectable still.

The extraordinary G major Sonata, op.79, opened the second half. Its first movement was pristine, almost neo-Classical, as full of interest and incident as that to the Eighth Symphony, and as intriguing, as elusive. The sense of musical ‘presence’ was intense even when it was light. The Andante was rare, unsettling, yet consoling. It breathed the air of a Bagatelle, yet remained undeniably a sonata movement. Much the same might be said of the finale, in its very different way. Beethoven’s quirkiness was present, alive, without a hint of overstatement.

The first movement of the Waldstein was taken swiftly, without ever being harried. There was ample time to savour the view, the moment. It flickered rather than insisted, ingratiated itself, even charmed us. Yet the sense of a goal was undeniable; there was no need to shout about it. Levit’s pianism as pianism was superlative, but one never heard it that way; this was no ‘mere’ virtuosity. ‘Organic’ may well be a Romantic construction – what is not? – but here, in Beethoven’s form, it seemed instantiated. The close, fearsome in its fury, was all the more so for its apparent inevitability, keen in its truthfulness. The ‘Introduzione’ spoke, like the Oracle in Idomeneo, both here and from beyond; its authority, Beethoven’s authority, sounded not dissimilar, even when more soft-spoken. I should call Levit’s touch ‘exquisite’, and it was, but that would miss the point; it was, above all, musical.

The opening bars of the finale and indeed the transition to that opening sounded limpid, euphonious to a degree. It was, however, the vividness of the ensuing tonal drama that ultimately assured the performance of its necessary outcome. One might single out Levit’s pedalling, his crossing of hands, his voicing of any chord (whether singularly or in context), his shaping of phrases, sculpting of paragraphs, but the play as a whole was the thing. We had reached the coda before we knew it; it emerged as a telescoped version of all that had gone before, almost filmic. And then, it was over.

Mark Berry

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