A Magnificent Recital in Variation Form from Igor Levit

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven and Rzewski: Igor Levit (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 24.5.2019. (MB)

Igor Levit (c) Robbie Lawrence
Igor Levit (c) Robbie Lawrence

Beethoven – Thirty-Three Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli Op.120

Rzewski – The People United will never be Defeated!

Following Igor Levit’s Goldberg Variations two nights previously (review), we now relaxed with a little light music. A programme of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations – how often would that appear in the first half of a concert? – and Frederic Rzewski’s The People United will never be Defeated! (not, as I misnamed it in the former review, in a bizarre, unconscious Anglicisation, ‘The People United shall not be Defeated’!) evidently, quite rightly, thrilled pianist and audience alike, eliciting a rare Wigmore Hall standing ovation.

First, then, Beethoven’s thirty-three variations on what he may or may not have called a Schusterfleck (‘cobbler’s patch’), the latter theme taken faster than I can recall, yet fleet rather than harried. The first six variations had a sense of an exposition, only to have their parameters transformed, transfigured, blown to smithereens. Smiling yet serious – echoes, I thought of the G major Sonata, op.14 no.2 – the first variation proved beautifully variegated, though never arch. Who could not have smiled at the lovely, throwaway final phrase? Almost pointillistic Mendelssohn in the second was followed by a third variation as seductive as anything in Liszt, its whispered, Schumannesque confidences serving only to remind one that there is little, save in Chopin, that nineteenth-century Romantic piano music does not owe to Beethoven. By the time we reached the fourth variation, Beethoven’s transformative method was clear – and, just as much to the point, felt: not just between variations but within them. The Lisztian sense of two hands becoming one was duly apparent in the fifth variation, the sixth showing harmonic proliferation – variation form notwithstanding – well under way.

And so, the stage had been set for what we might think of – and surely experienced as – gigantic development and finale (i.e. development upon development). Beethoven and the idea of Beethoven so condition how we understand German and much other music thereafter – perhaps not Ravel, who spoke of ‘le grand sourd’ – that the very idea of musical development is well-nigh impossible to dissociate from his music. (And why should anyone try?) At any rate, I heard the remainder less as individual variations – and I suspect that was at least in part owed to the performance. All tendencies – modernist, Romantic, Classical, even Bachian – came more into their own, whilst at the same time combining to make the sense of a whole still stronger. Dialectics. Major and minor, oscillation between which Charles Rosen famously discussed as a hallmark of the Classical style, and other dialectical poles truly became the stuff of musical argument. Pauses, syncopations, a simple V-I progression all told: again in themselves and as part of something much greater. Can music go beyond the late Beethoven sonatas? If so – and many would say it does in the late quartets – it did here, just as the Ninth Symphony, in a rare meaningful performance, will beyond its eight predecessors. Indeed, I drew thematic and harmonic connections with the rest of Beethoven’s œuvre, with musical history more broadly; not for nothing did another great culmination, the Missa solemnis, come to mind. The array of contrapuntal procedures heard here, however, was far more developmental; this is not the alienated masterpiece Adorno discerned in Beethoven’s Mass. It is still a set of variations, after all. I am not sure, though, that I have ever heard this work sound so productively difficult and engaging.

A bold, confident statement announced Rzewski’s panoramic set of variations, immediately varied. Grand Romanticism, Webern-like pointillism, so much was more or less immediately thrown into the mix, direct and elusive. Here the opposites were more obvious, perhaps, but Rzewski’s – and Levit’s – aims here were different: the desire to give voice recalled to me, perhaps eccentrically, Henze’s song-cycle, Voices. Levit stretched the keyboard, it seemed, to many of its limits, to bring to life a very different world from Beethoven’s, one in which one might see and hear events in Chile on the television, one in which solidarity and class consciousness were both more advanced and more under siege, as well as entirely different in nature. The musical questions were different too – or were they? That there were no easy answers was not the least hallmark of this performance, as well as reflection upon it. Transcendental virtuosity was required – and received. Monumentalism too: perhaps in the opposite direction from Beethoven, Rzewski self-consciously returning at times to hyper-Romanticism. Equally present, however, was poignancy, never more so than in those whistled memories, never quite the same. There could be no passive listening here, any more than political quietism. Is the work ‘too much’? Perhaps, but some might say the same of Beethoven. And what does that really mean? Nothing, probably. Through the piano and through Levit, it seemed, both composers spoke; so too did humanity.

Mark Berry

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