Another Illuminating Instalment of Beethoven from Igor Levit

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven: Igor Levit (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 9.10.2016. (MB)

Beethoven – Piano Sonata No.24 in F-sharp major, Op.78; Piano Sonata No.4 in E-flat major, Op.7; Piano Sonata No.9 in E major, Op.14 No.1; Piano Sonata No.10 in G major, Op.14 No.2; Piano Sonata No.26 in E-flat major, Op.81a

The second instalment in Igor Levit’s Beethoven series at the Wigmore Hall proved a worthy successor indeed to the first, each of these five sonatas genuinely illuminated. A true Adagio opening to the F-sharp major Sonata proved prophetic for the rest of the first movement in its tonal – in more than one sense – warmth. That unerring sense of line on which I previously remarked was equally present here, the spaces between notes just as much part of their phrases as the notes themselves. This is a difficult work; or at least it is as soon as one begins to listen to it. Its difficulty is, however, a gracious difficulty, and so it sounded in performance. Echoes, even at this stage, of Haydn, but also intimations of Schumann were to be heard; there was no doubting, however, Beethoven’s endless searching for himself, for invention and reinvention. Such was also true of the second movement, although its character was, of course, quite different. Who else could make such a scampering Bagatelle-on-steroids the only possible response? That needs to be accomplished in performance too; it requires harmonic understanding as well as virtuosity. Both were present and correct here, the modernity, perhaps even modernism, of the latter hinting even at Liszt and Prokofiev.

After so enigmatic a work, the directness of the opening to the Op.7 Sonata proved a splendid response. Metre is of such importance here, and so it was in Levit’s account, but as much for what it enables harmonically and melodically as simply in itself. The passing of a melodic line between hands was an object lesson in how it ‘should be done’. Moreover, one really heard and felt how simple figures and devices are transmuted into something special indeed. The slow movement is perhaps a difficult jigsaw puzzle to solve, not least since it must not sound like a jigsaw puzzle at all. A sense of the whole is crucial, likewise a sense of affinity to the great symphonic slow movements Beethoven was yet to write, and indeed to operatic arioso. A sure structural and dramatic hand is needed to evoke all that and more; that we certainly had here, in a performance both outward and inward. The grace of the Minuet did not mask, but rather released, Beethovenian depth. Never overstating the menace of the Trio ensured that its almost Schubertian passion emerged all the more powerfully. Neo-Classical, post-Mozartian, call what you will the loveliness of the rondo theme: that quality was immanent, yet the reading remained entirely devoid of sentimentality; this was, quite rightly, anything but easy listening. The ferocity of much of the movement came as quite a surprise and cast quite a shadow; it had me rethink many of my preconceptions.

The second half opened with the two Op.14 Sonatas, of which the first, in E major, began with clarity, elegance, and just the right note of Beethovenian gruffness. I loved the sense of drum rolls in the bass, and indeed of quartet textures – not for nothing did Beethoven choose this sonata to arrange – elsewhere. All three movements were ultimately guided by harmonic rhythm, but that did not mean there was no time to enjoy the moment, the voicing of the minor-key second movement an especial joy. A regularity I might a priori have thought restricting proved just the thing to have the surprises of the finale’s twists and turns enthral as they should.

The first movement of the G major companion sonata was taken swiftly, yet never sounded hard-driven; there was, again, plenty of space for necessary reflection. Drive came in and through the drama, which was as sharply characterised and focused as in any performance I can recall. Levit played the second movement straight: very wise. (I recall with horror a performance I gave as a student in which I pulled it around without mercy – or understanding.) Beethoven was taken at his word, with exquisite, yet never self-regarding, touch. The finale was taken very fast; it is, after all, marked Allegro assai. So ‘right’ did that sound, that it was impossible to imagine it convincing any other way. Again, metre and rhythm sounded as enablers, even creators, of melody and harmony. When one gave the matter the briefest of consideration, though, one realised that it might well have been the other way around.

The opening of Les Adieux signalled a different, more emotionally complex world, Levit’s nobility of utterance foreshadowing the late sonatas. Another layer of complexity was added, almost ironically, and certainly dialectically, in the relative straightforwardness of the exposition. That is, until one really listened, and appreciated that it was anything but. Counterpoint was wondrously clear, and above all harmonically meaningful: Bach lived a second, third life. The second movement seemed to breathe an almost Wagnerian air. That was subject to change, to transformation, but the sense of something akin to orchestral utterance was strong, even remarkable. Freedom in fantasy was necessarily born of a security of tonal plan, out of which the finale burst in all its richness, variety, and profound humanity, almost as if the life-force itself. Such is Beethoven, the letter and the spirit as one. Yet it takes a great performance, which this certainly was, to have one truly appreciate that. Such a performance will also question itself at the same time as it speaks with confidence; needless to say, Levit accomplished that too. Onwards and upwards.

Mark Berry

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