United Kingdom Beethoven: Igor Levit (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 26.2.2017. (MB)
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.16 in G major, op.31 no.1; Piano Sonata no.15 in D major, op.28, ‘Pastoral’; Piano Sonata no.13 in E-flat major, op.27 no.1, ‘Quasi una fantasia’; Piano Sonata no.14 in C-sharp minor, op.27 no.2, ‘Moonlight’
Six down: two to go. Alas, I am unlikely to be able to hear the final two programmes in Igor Levit’s Beethoven series, but there were on this occasion perhaps a few intimations of the late(r) sonatas I shall miss (nos 27-32). Not that there was any one generic aesthetic applied to the works: the richness of their variety was celebrated, each sonata clearly considered in its own right.
From the op.31 set, we heard the first, in G major. Levit immediately showed himself to be a fine communicator of contrast, humorous and otherwise. Its first movement was fast, insistent, even obsessive. Work and performance made me smile; they also made me nervous. Oscillation between major and minor registered full of potentiality. Both the fury and the concision of the development were fully apparent, with the recapitulation seemingly as full of something new as something old. Beethoven’s games in the coda were properly relished. Humour remained to the fore in the slow movement, its almost absurdly ornate neo-Classicism speaking for itself. That certainly did not preclude subtlety; the ability to surprise arose seemingly naturally, however problematic that idea, from command of line. In the finale, intimations of a later Romanticism and indeed a later modernity still had no need to be underlined; they spoke nevertheless, as playful as Beethoven’s reckoning with his own inheritance.
The Pastoral Sonata is a more overtly seraphic, indeed sublime work, and so it sounded. What a wealth of music, in the strongest sense, there was to be heard in sequences, in repeated scales. Always werden, never sein: the essence of Romanticism. Beethoven’s radicalism sounded most pronounced in the first movement’s development, peering forward to the fractures of his late self. The moment of return brought due consolation. The sublimity of insistency in the onward trudge of the ensuing march quite rightly sounded close to Schubert, without ever sounding quite ‘like’ his music. Line again was key, but so was variegation. The whimsical central section sounded as if from a different world – or did it? At any rate, the return of the march material seemed transfigured by the experience. An urgent, even impetuous scherzo – its trio too – was over in the twinkling of an eye, drawing comfort in the opening bars of the finale. Whilst that comfort was certainly not illusory, there were battles yet to be fought and won. That victory proved both hard-won and elegant.
In the second half, we heard the two op.27 sonatas. I am not sure how much sense, even as metaphor, it makes to speak of a velvety touch, yet that was how the opening of the first movement of op. 27/1 registered to me – in tandem with irreproachable clarity. Holy ground was never confused with false piety. The shock of the contrasting material was communicated with authentic Beethovenian brusqueness. A scherzo that balanced fury and humour glanced back to Haydn without any sacrifice to the impression that it might have been written yesterday. Nobility of utterance in the developing variation of the Adagio con espressione section was unmistakeable: Beethoven and his interpreter reached for the stars, and came very close indeed to them. This certainly sounded as one of those intimations of the late master, as did the transition to the finale, whose fantastical brilliance relished both Beethoven’s humour and his prodigality of invention. Once again, we were reminded that this was a pupil of Haydn.
The hushed anticipation to the very opening of the Moonlight Sonata – it may be a silly nickname, but it is probably not worth contesting it – seemed somehow to condense an entire symphonic introduction into the simplest of choral progressions and piano figurations. Again, it developed – and reminded us of what an extraordinary, indeed astoundingly original piece of music this is, quite unlike anything else. The dignity with which the first movement unfolded was quite spellbinding. Imbued with a proper sense of nostalgia, although certainly not sentimentality, the Allegretto suggested Mozart slightly overgrown, its trio very much in the line of the explorations we had heard earlier in the Pastoral. There was nothing backward looking there – save perhaps for a fond glance back to the chromatic sliding of the Jupiter Symphony’s Minuet. The finale proved startling, as it must, its excitement visceral, yes, but above all musical. Structure and detail combined to create not only form but meaning.