Igor Levit Joins the English Chamber Orchestra in Beethoven and Britten

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner, Beethoven, Britten: Igor Levit (piano), English Chamber Orchestra, Paul Watkins (conductor) Cadogan Hall, London. 1.12.2011 (RB)

Wagner: Siegfried Idyll
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor Op 37
Young Apollo (for piano and string orchestra) Op 16
Symphony No. 2 in D Op 36

For this concert Paul Watkins and the ECO were joined by Igor Levit, who has already established a considerable reputation for himself as a chamber musician, partnering such distinguished artists as Renaud Capuçon, Mischa Maisky and Maxim Vengerov. Levit offered an interesting mix of familiar repertoire with the less frequently performed Young Apollo .

Wagner presented the Siegfried Idyll as a birthday present to his wife, Cosima, on Christmas Day 1870. The music for the Idyll was taken from the third Act of Siegfried, which is the third of the four operas in Wagner’s ‘Ring Cycle’. There were some lovely warm lyrical sounds and exquisite phrasing from the ECO’s strings in the opening section. I wondered if the textures might have been more finely graded at the initial entry of the woodwind with their birdsong. The build-up in tension was well judged and there was excellent control of texture and dynamics in the strings. The horns and woodwind added some lovely colouring before the final return to tranquility.

I always think the mature Beethoven piano concertos are a real test of the musicianship of young pianists, and Igor Levit rose to the challenge well. The ECO provided considerable drive and impetus in the opening tutti and Levit’s initial entry was very even and precise. He brought out the robust and muscular elements of the opening movement while at the same time keeping a close eye to Beethoven’s very precise Classical idiom in the passage work. His chamber music credentials came through in the development section where there was some excellent interplay with the orchestra. Beethoven’s cadenza was brilliantly played, with Levit perfectly knitting together the blend of free fantasia elements with the virtuoso pyrotechnics while the pianissimo section in the coda struck the right note of ominous foreboding.

Levit produced a lovely tone in the opening of the expressive largo and the highly elaborate ornamentation was executed with real finesse. He again showed his chamber music credentials in the middle of the slow movement where there was some excellent accompaniment from the ECO. There were some distractions in the balcony of the Cadogan Hall during this movement with audience members changing seats. I noticed that some of the orchestral members were distracted and the audience clearly were. It is a credit to Levit, Watkins and the ECO that they were not fazed by this. Levit dispatched the final rondo with energy and flair and he brought out the Haydnesque wit and playful elements of the movement. The central section was played with lyrical charm and the articulation and phrasing were excellent throughout. Levit seemed to take Watkins and the ECO by surprise in the coda, which he dispatched at a very brisk pace but orchestra and soloist came together again for a triumphant conclusion.

Britten’s Young Apollo is not a work with which I am familiar and it seems to be a new work for Levit as well as he had the score in front of him and used a page turner. It was commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on the eve of the Second World War and comprises a single movement. The opening scale flourishes on the piano were very even and precise while Levit seemed to relish the subsequent galloping textures on the piano. There was some excellent interplay between Levit and the ECO’s strings and both he and Watkins kept a close eye on balance and sonority.

The concert concluded with Beethoven’s wonderful D major symphony which to some commentators represents an apotheosis of the Classical style of Haydn and Mozart. The slow introduction to the first movement was arresting and dramatic while the subsequent allegro con brio had drive and energy with Watkins coaxing some nice interplay between the scurrying strings and lilting woodwind. The larghetto second movement had a lyrical elegance while the articulation and shading in the tiptoeing theme was immaculately judged. The playing was marred by some tuning problems at the end of this movement but these were quickly resolved. The rhythmic and dynamic changes of the scherzo were handled well while the ECO had fun with the subversive high jinks of the finale with its unexpected twists and turns.

Robert Beattie