More Outstanding and Challenging Beethoven from Igor Levit

12/12/2016

Beethoven: Igor Levit (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 6.12.2016. (MB)

Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.17 in D minor, op.31 no.2, ‘The Tempest’; Piano Sonata no.11 in B-flat major, op.22; Piano Sonata no.3 in C major, op.2 no.3; Piano Sonata no.8 in C minor, op.13, ‘Pathétique’

You could probably write this review yourselves now: well, the essential thrust, with a good few purple adjectives tastefully discarded. Contrarians would find something ‘different’ to say for the sake of it, but 2016 has had quite enough of contrarians, thank you. Suffice it to say that this was another outstanding Beethoven recital from Igor Levit, with a good few challenges to any preconceptions, whether concerning work or pianist, not least in the comparatively neglected op.22 Sonata.

‘The Tempest’, though, opened in surprising fashion too. It always sounds exploratory, or at least always should. I am always put in mind – I think I have probably quoted this before – of Carl Dahlhaus’s Nineteenth-Century Music contrast with a melody from Les Huguenots:

By the criteria of Italo-French music, Beethoven’s movement does not have the slightest claim to a musical idea worthy of the name. What his work is based on is not a thematic — much less melodic — ‘inspiration’ so much as a formal concept: the arpeggiated triad … The opening, seemingly an introduction, can be viewed in retrospect as an exposition. … If one extreme of music is the melodic ‘inspiration’ [to exemplify which, he quotes that Meyerbeer melody], limited to a few measures and with the form functioning merely as an arrangement, the other would seem to be the almost disembodied formal process emerging from a void.

So it mysteriously did here, a world created before our ears, ex nihilo, with that creation ongoing, continual. Telling rubato, almost improvisatory in quality, was of course anything but arbitrary, ever grounded in Beethoven’s harmony. Levit’s playing was wondrously clear, without the slightest loss to ‘atmosphere’. (Think, perhaps, of Boulez’s conducting. If you do not know his Beethoven Fifth, greatly admired by Sviatoslav Richter amongst others, do rectify that omission!) Rhetoric formed structure, and all the while that arpeggio, those arpeggios acted as Prospero (perhaps Caliban too on occasion?) Recitative took us into the world of late Beethoven, every note impregnated with meaning, seeming almost to prepare for, as well as to contrast with, the post-Mozartian arioso of the slow movement. Relished, even adored, quite rightly, creation of melody was hard work, yet not without fancy, even fantasy. It was almost, at times, a Bagatelle writ-large, and not necessarily an early one. This, I thought, was an undeniably modernist Beethoven, after which will-o’-the-wisp Romanticism came with the finale as another welcome contrast; so too, did a vehemence that seemed to hint at Chopin and Liszt. Beethoven sounded possessed, increasingly so, with all his trademark obstinacy. The end was almost a void: perhaps a return, yet not quite.

The B-flat Sonata, op.22, opened in dazzling, insistent fashion, with an air of detachment I found unsettling. It is an odd piece, but I am not sure I have heard it sound – let alone thought of it – as quite so odd before. Haydn on acid? How, though, I wish I could play a single bar of the left-hand part like that! The first-movement development was mysterious, the recapitulation quite the agōn. I was quite unsure what to make of the whole, but am sure that I shall never think of it quite the same way again. The slow movement sang with all the joy and regret of a valiant attempt to recapture the lost world of Mozart – until, that is, it did something different, when once again I felt a whole world of nineteenth-century music stretching out before me. It was increasingly ecstatic, as those two tendencies combined, interwove, all with unbroken line. The minuet was more capricious than one often hears, full of (ambiguous) character, its trio more furious, almost frighteningly so. The (faux-)naïveté of the finale’s post-Mozartian stance was itself played with, rendering the movement all the more mysterious. Contrast, when it came, registered with properly Beethovenian shock, almost as if I had never heard it before. Was there reconciliation? Almost, but not quite: if we are honest, modernity, Beethoven’s as well as ours, no longer permits that.

Almost nonchalant, whimsical even, the opening of the C major Sonata, op.2 no.3, announced its debt to Haydn, before declaring its Beethovenian ingratitude: such sforzandi! A little Mozartian glee completed the trinity, with Mozart also clearly the progenitor of the minor-mode material. The particular variety of humanism was of course Beethoven’s – and his interpreter’s – own, even at this early stage. Ripe lyricism was relished; harmonic muscles were flexed, a whole tonal universe lying in front of us. This was unquestionably a young man’s music, yet the development gave a taste of things to come, not least rhythmically. Harmonic direction was confirmed here, intensified in the recapitulation. Likewise humour. I was struck by the Schubertian (I suppose I should say ‘proto-Schubertian’) characteristics, melodic and harmonic, of the slow movement, characteristics I do not think I had noticed before. Much, of course, is a common debt to Mozart, but even so… And then, once again, echt-Beethovenian shock: shock in sublimity and humanity. We heard a strikingly mature variety of Beethovenian gruff humour in the scherzo, wryness too. The piano articulation so necessary to convey that was almost, yet not quite, a joy in itself. The finale was not dissimilar, yet possessed of its own particular ‘character’ – an idea to which I returned again and again, throughout the recital. The music responded to Mozart, yes, but was never to be mistaken for another’s writing. Imagining the music under one’s own fingers, however incompetent, it ‘felt’ like Beethoven. It was wonderfully playful, and playful in its sense of wonder.

How to make the ‘Pathétique’ sound new? Not by doing things to it, but by playing it with burning belief. (The same goes, I might add, for listening to it, reading it, thinking about it.) The music was sculpted with a fine sense of musical drama, Michelangelesque, even: Il penseroso? After which, the exposition ‘proper’ – but is it? – came as release, albeit intensification too. The development sounded, felt, as if another rocket, its tonality ensuring the flames were of a different hue. It was a miracle, or so it seemed, how quickly we returned: such is art. And the recapitulation proved, quite rightly, to be a second development. The slow movement was imbued with simple songfulness, or so it seemed, for nothing is ever quite so simple as that, whatever Winckelmann might have had us believe about the Greeks. A heightened sense of the special quality to this material reminded us why it has long been so loved. Music is often, if not always, celebrated for a good reason. The finale blew in like an icy wind, which never failed to take us by surprise, however much we might thought we ‘knew’ it. C minor was always going to win, but there were other worlds to survey, even to enjoy. The brusqueness of the conclusion, neither too much nor too little, was spot on. Onwards, then, and upwards…

Mark Berry

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