Igor Levit’s Insightful Beethoven Cycle Continues to Stimulate and Enrich

31/01/2017

Beethoven: Igor Levit (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 30.1.2017. (MB)

Beethoven, Piano Sonata no.2 in A major, op.2 no.2; Piano Sonata no.7 in D major, op.10 no.3; Piano Sonata no.6 in F major, op.10 no.2; Piano Sonata no.18 in E-flat major, op.31 no.3

I found myself torn. Should I actually have been attending the march to Downing Street against Donald Trump and his enabler, Theresa May? There is more than one way to resist, though: of that I am certain. Listen, for instance, to Furtwängler’s wartime recordings. (I have just been listening, on Schubert’s birthday, to the 1942 Great C major Symphony. The anger is still more palpable in Beethoven Ninth’s from the same year. And so, of course, is the power of Beethoven’s music to resist.) And whilst all great art, all great human endeavour, will have something to offer in that respect, Beethoven lays claim to a very special place. Sceptics can rail all they like, try to cut his music down to size, deny Beethoven’s art its heroism; they will never succeed. We know that a performance of Fidelio from Daniel Barenboim and young musicians, many of whom would now be denied entry to the United States, has something very important to tell us. Just as we know that Beethoven from the Palestine Youth Orchestra, two of its members cruelly denied ‘permission’ by an enthusiastic Trump ally to leave Gaza, will speak of a musical necessity of which we can barely conceive, yet in a sense need just as keenly. To hear Beethoven piano sonatas, then, from an artist whose steadfast opposition to fascism (click here, for instance, for his statement to a Brussels audience following Trump’s election) is not the least admirable of his humanist qualities, and to engage with that performance as an audience member in, I hope, an active rather than a passive sense, had its merits too.

We began in the eighteenth century, with the second of the thirty-two sonatas, the A major, op.2 no.2. The opening phrase sounded fresh, still, just about, of that world; the answering phrase already showed Beethoven flexing his muscles in the direction of things to come. Great care over articulation and phrasing contributed to the urgency of the performance: nothing was rushed; everything counted. Accents and sforzandi mattered in a sense far beyond ‘mere’ expression: their structural function and thus their meaning too seemed almost to speak of a world we might have thought opened up by Webern and his successors. The first movement’s development section offered proper intensification, as if taking after the symphonic Beethoven still to come, and the recapitulation proved as much a second development as a return, motivic working key here. That said, proportions still spoke, quite rightly, of Classical perfection. (A question I often set first-year undergraduates relates to whether we should consider Beethoven to be a Classical or a Romantic composer. The longer I think about it, the more difficult, yet necessary, a question it is. Should it prove to be question to which just a few of them return throughout their lives, that would make me happy indeed.) With hushed dignity, the Largo appassionato was constructed before our ears. Architecture came to the fore, without compromise to the quasi-vocal ornamentalism so typical of much early Beethoven. Alas, it took the most full-blooded tone for Igor Levit to mask, if only briefly, an all too zealous contribution from quadrophonic bronchial activists. The Scherzo was characterised by graceful insouciance, as if trying to recapture a Mozartian world that would ever remain just beyond it, tantalisingly so. Its trio, both in legato and vivid drama, seems also to speak of Mozart. If I have heard the finale more overtly loved – often loved to death, I fear – this performance intrigued in laying bare Beethoven’s musical processes. Not that it was short on drama, far from it, but it showed, in modernistic fashion, that those processes are not only its motor but perhaps even, at least in part, its subject matter. Tonal surprises registered, if anything, all the more strongly.

At the opening of the D major Sonata, op.10 no.2, we heard a related, yet unquestionably different, tonality. One might say the same of much else too, of course, but it was that indefinable ‘character’ of key – even if Beethoven might use D major differently somewhere else – that immediately struck me. A dizzying array of themes was thoroughly integrated in a performance that knew exactly where it was heading. It was very fast – Beethoven marks its Presto, after all – yet never too fast, never breathless. Rockets soared, especially in the development, yet their trail never lacked grace. Again, the sheer difference of the recapitulation registered strongly, thrillingly. There was no mistaking, even from the first bar, the Romantic gravity of the slow movement, quite distinct from anything we had yet heard; and yet, that vocal, quasi-operatic quality remained to be heard too, transformed, even transfigured. Imbued with a meaning that could never be reduced to words, Levit showed us that, if all Beethoven matters enormously, some matters still more. Even the starkest dynamic contrasts could not disrupt the musico-dramatic line; they strengthened it: perhaps there is a message there for us beyond the concert hall too. After that, the Menuetto sounded with charm; disruptions, or apparent disruptions, in the bass, showed a different variety of charm and more than a little Beethovenian humour. Both quizzical and furious, the finale burst forth as a riot of Haydnesque invention that could never have been written by Haydn. Beethoven had learned his lessons far too well to be mistaken for another. The particular integrative impulse was very much Beethoven’s own – and, of course, that of the pianist.

The first movement of op.10 no.2, in F major, sounded initially not so distant from it’s a major counterpart in approach. The devil, or perhaps the angel, proved to be in the detail. Beethoven’s good nature shone through: more than good nature, profound humanity. Levit conveyed a fine sense of deep mystery to the development, which proved ‘surprising’, even if one flattered oneself one knew it. There was protean mystery to the central Allegretto too. Heard as if in a single breath, it revealed such an array of incident when one truly listened – and how could one not? The Presto finale was despatched with a virtuosity permitting of both fury and levity (no pun intended). Counterpoint was relished, proving generative of a well-nigh neo-Mozartian host of ‘characters’ plying their trade upon our aural stage.

With the E-flat major Sonata, op.31 no.3, we found ourselves in a very different world. What a work this is; how much more often we ought to hear it! The tonal centre emerged gracefully, yet not too easily, from that extraordinary first-movement introduction. (It is as much a joy to play as to hear!) And yet, despite the differences in scale, maturity, and so much else, there was again a sense of a host of characters treading the aural boards before us, Beethoven’s neo-Mozartian flirtations now at greater distance and perhaps even possessed of still greater affection. Rhythm, harmony, and melody formed an indissoluble whole, conveyed with exquisite voicing that yet never remotely seemed an end in itself. Above all, quite rightly, this was a drama. The second movement is, quite frankly, a bastard to play, but you would never have known it from this performance, in which lightness of touch and great boldness were revealed as two sides of the same coin. It was more boisterous than Mendelssohn but perhaps gestured more than a little in his direction. That sense of longing for an age to which Beethoven – perhaps all of us – would like to return, yet could not, imbued the third movement, played with tender luxuriance. All too often it is rushed, but not here, the richness of Beethoven’s harmonies present for all to hear. A skittish contrast was announced with the finale, whose mood changes proved just as protean as anything in the preceding sonata. It was every inch a finale, every inch a Beethoven finale: just what was required.

To quote Hans Werner Henze, in an article entitled ‘Does Music have to be Political?’: ‘Beethoven regarded his whole enterprise as a contribution to human progress.’ Let us do so too.

Mark Berry

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