More Mastery from Igor Levit in Beethoven

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven: Igor Levit (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 18.3.2017. (CC)

Beethoven, Piano Sonatas: No.27 in E minor, Op.90; No.28 in A, Op.101; No.29 in B flat, Op.106, “Hammerklavier”

This is the first of Igor Levit’s ongoing series of Beethoven piano sonata recitals that I have had the privilege of attending: my colleague Mark Berry was until recently covering the series (see his reviews here, herehere and here). My own experience of Levit, apart from that stunning set of Bach, Beethoven and Rzewski Variations on Sony (review), was a duo recital with violinist Julia Fischer in July last year. It turns out he is even more impressive as soloist.

The processional of late Beethoven (Op.90 dates from 1814 and arguably sits on the cusp of the late style proper; Op.101 from 1816 and Op.106 from 1817/18) makes for a refreshingly, rewardingly demanding listen. The two-movement Op.90 began in quite a free, even fractured manner; as the performance went on, it was Levit’s delicacy and complete grasp of Beethoven’s structure that led us through. With a much varied touch and tone, Beethoven’s lines sang with the type of serenity only won through much suffering. The second movement was impeccably songlike, yet careful listening revealed how each strand of texture was fully thought-through.

One wonders how Levit deals with presenting two late Beethoven Sonatas prior to the “Hammerklavier”. Certainly the Sonata in A major, Op.101 poses demands of intensity and concentration fully equivalent to the slow movement of Op.106. That Levit could enter the rarefied world of Op.101 from the very first note was remarkable, later in the Marschmäßig central panel finding and prolonging the fragmentary intensity of Beethoven’s writing. It was as if the delicate moments of Op.90 had been further saturated with mysticism as Beethoven slid into the space his later works inhabit. Single lines spoke volumes, searching for a redemption that was, at least temporarily, withheld. The finale, Langsam und sehnsuchtsvoll found Levit waiting for complete silence before he began; quite rightly so, as the movement was taken properly slowly, the lines searching for something as yet out of reach.

Many, surely, had come for the “Hammerklavier” (the event was fully sold out). This is a herculean task at the best of times and Levit rose to the occasion magnificently. Yes, he split the left-hand leap in the opening bars as so many do (missing out on the palpable sense of danger Beethoven surely intended) but the intensity came instead from a fast tempo coupled with crystalline clarity. No lingering ever, but this did not emerge as rushed. Observing the exposition repeat gave the development even more force, trills, rightly for late Beethoven, having an inner energy of their own, completely and utterly emancipated from any decorative function.

The slight (in duration terms only) Scherzo was given possibly the most musically intelligent reading I have heard, dotted rhythms perfectly judged. But it was the work’s final magnificent pairing of the Adagio sostenuto with that great finale that really underlined the special nature of Levit’s Beethoven. Taking the third movement in what felt like a slow two to a bar, he created hypnotic magic, a spell that held the Wigmore audience, blissfully, in silence. Octave legato, so vital in this movement, was exquisitely done and here would be the right time to acknowledge something that was consistently excellent throughout the evening but which seemed to truly come into its own here: Levit’s perfectly controlled, intelligently judged pedalling. Melodies grew organically from silences; rests were perfectly counted (by no means a given, in fact the exception to the rule). Thus it was that the transition led inevitably to the work’s notorious finale, trills once again taking on an incendiary life of their own. Technically, this was astounding (the evenness of the left-hand at speed remarkable); musically, it was even finer. Levit’s rock-solid sense of rhythm propelled the movement forward – there was no sense of the near-omnipresent semiquavers running away with themselves. Levit had the audience, rightly, spellbound, so that the pause before the slow counterpoint near the close was electric.

A magnificent evening.

Colin Clarke

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