Igor Levit’s Beethoven Cycle: A Cumulative Privilege

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven: Igor Levit (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 7.11.2016. (MB)

Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.5 in C minor, op.10 no.1; Piano Sonata no.19 in G minor, op.49 no.1; Piano Sonata no.20 in G major, op.49 no.2; Piano Sonata no.22 in F major, op.54; Piano Sonata no.23 in F minor, op.57, ‘Appassionata’

With this, the third instalment of his Beethoven series, Igor Levit showed no sign whatsoever of running out of steam. How could so thoughtful a musician, when such riches remain in store? Instead, the experience proves a cumulative privilege.

With the C minor Sonata, op.10 no.1, Levit – and Beethoven, or should that be the other way around? – immediately impressed in differentiating from the obvious Mozartian model (KV 457); likewise with the unity of melody, harmony, and rhythm (in no particular order, that being the point). As a Schoenberg scholar, I found my thoughts directed to this as an instantiation of what Schoenberg might have called the Idea; as a Wagner scholar, I thought of the melos; I thought, above all, though, of Beethoven. That concision which so often, although certainly not in the Third Piano Concerto, seems to accompany Beethoven in C minor was as striking as ever in this first movement exposition, and indeed in the movement as a whole. The ambiguous shock of the chord opening, or rather unleashing, the development seemed to ask, at so fraught a time for our world, whether Beethoven offered hope or damnation. (He will always ultimately offer the former, but we must listen, not always our strongest suit.) Mozart hovered more clearly over the return to the minor mode as the recapitulation drew to a close, but those final two chords could only have been Beethoven, richly, dramatically played as they were here.

It was that heart-rendingly post-Mozartian Beethoven who spoke first of all in the Adagio molto. Levit transformed what we might think of instrumental-turned-vocal-turned-instrumental rhetoric into something of rare magic indeed, ever founded upon harmony. The movement’s luxuriant, even ecstatic unfolding was perfectly voiced; one might have wished it would go on for ever, therein lying much of its poignancy. A will-o’-the-wisp quality to the finale almost suggested Schumann, but the goal orientation was clearly that of Beethoven, born of Haydn. It was furious, and yes, Prestissimo: rightly unsettling, and yet not without humour.

The first of the op.49 sonatas opened with a statement again post-Mozartian in character. Poised, dignified, this first movement put me in mind of Pamina. (Perhaps it was the key, that of ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’, but I do not think it was only that.) I even fancied I heard a nod or two to imaginary Bach Inventions. The second of the work’s two movements brought Beethoven as heir to Haydn once again to the fore, not least, within a few bars, the heir who simply would not wait his turn. There was an exquisite, loving boisterousness to Levit’s performance here, its ‘character’ spot on, gruff humour and all.

The G major successor piece, op.49 no.2, also opened in post-Mozartian mode, initial assumptions treated similarly here. This first movement’s particular character and affinities shone through without exaggeration, teasing rubato to the point, touch to die for. Repeated notes were merely one case in point. The second movement’s lilt, which both is and is not that of the Septet’s Minuet, was unerringly judged. Again, at least for me, it was the pain of both proximity to and distance from Mozart that sang most movingly of all, even when the method owed more to Haydn.

Tightness of rhythm struck me at the opening of the F major Sonata, op.54. Not because it was exaggerated or even underlined, but because it is so often underplayed. Again, the movement’s very particular character came to the fore. It is perhaps too easy to call it ‘quirky’, although there is surely an element of that. Those syncopations, however, could not help but make me smile. Moreover, a tendency towards proliferation even suggested a touch of Boulez. I am not sure I have ever heard so clear a connection, as well as contrast, between the sonata’s two movements. It was almost as if tendencies within the first movement had received a shake of the kaleidoscope – and, voilà! Sui generis this extraordinary second movement rightly remained, a lance thrown far into the Schummanesque, even Lisztian future.

Finally, we heard the Appassionata. The expository function of the opening materials was clear, yet also generative. (Liszt’s B minor Sonata seemed not so very far away.) The welding together, or rather communication of a Beethovenian unity always present, is where artistry comes in; so it did here, as mysterious as it was undeniable. Progress through the first movement proved, rightly, both straightforward and complex, Levit’s variety of the tragic impulse reminiscent of the younger Pollini. The slow movement flowed almost unassumingly, although never without gravity. Profundity was revealed, so it seemed, through the material, not imposed upon it. Variation form made its own nature and impetus felt, the proliferating spirit of the first movement reinvented before our ears. Precision and tragic impulse were very clearly two sides to the same coin in the finale. Even here, the spirit of Mozart, the Mozart of the Fortieth Symphony, was far from vanquished. Command of line and projection of character proved equally remarkable, likewise voicing, limpidity, and depth of tone. Passagework, if one may use so apparently banal a term for this music, sounded as if it were both at the service of the work and yet also liberated by it, Beethoven’s genius bursting at the seams. This was a great performance of a great work.

Mark Berry

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