Germany Musikfest Berlin  – Beethoven: Igor Levit (piano). Philharmonie, Berlin, 31.8.2020. (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’
Sturm und Drang or full-blown Romanticism? Why choose? The point was twin fury and tenderness, their dialectical connection crucial. This Igor Levit performance of Beethoven’s early C minor Sonata, Op.10 No.1, thereby offered an object, concise lesson in first-movement sonata form contrasts: their necessity and meaning. The shock with which the development section began and the new paths along which it led were very much part of that, roots unquestionably in Haydn, yet never reducible. It was all over before we knew it; Beethoven the radical — already. The poise with which the Adagio molto unfolded, plenty of space for detail truly to register, was finely judged. Here was a dignity that was moral above all: ‘“The moral law within and the starry skies above us!” — Kant!’ as he would note more than two decades hence, in an 1820 conversation book. Clarity, complexity, and the particular character of this slow movement were unerringly recreated before our ears. The finale’s extremity of Beethovenian drive, at times almost tipping over into Schumann, made for a thrilling ride, which, had we known, might well have come from closer to 1820. ‘Lateness’ can be early, as suggested by a rhetorical, formally comprehending performance that yet proved enigmatic to a degree.
The two little Op.49 sonatas were treated with all the seriousness and affection they deserved. The G minor Sonata’s first movement as lovely as any Bagatelle, its melancholy and invention equally relished. Its second movement suggested a yarn well spun, full of incident. Taken without a break, the G major Sonata thereby sounded all the more as a companion piece. Its first movement had Mozartian poise and dignity, imbued with difference enough to make it quite clear that this was Beethoven. Touching naïveté characterised the second, its simplicity distinguishing it from Beethoven’s reworking in the Septet. Nothing was condescended to; everything was enjoyed for what it is. Delightful!
By contrast, simplicity such as we heard at the opening of the Op.52 Sonata was unquestionably ‘secondary’, mediated: from Kant, then, to Hegel. Such subtlety pervaded Levit’s performance just as much as the work itself, even prior to the first furious dialectical outburst. Once more, ‘late Beethoven’ seemed already to be among us. There was no shying away from difficulty; rather it was celebrated and confronted. Strangeness was relished, even heightened, through fidelity, both here and in the second movement, its moto perpetuo a means rather than an end, that end unrepentantly modernist, even Schoenbergian.
Ghostliness of a different, yet perhaps related, kind haunted the opening of the Appassionata, whose first movement received a duly questing account, transcendental and Faustian by turn and sometimes simultaneously. It was difficult not to think of Liszt and Busoni, of what they might have made of this ever extraordinary work. Levit afforded space for surprises, yet equally urgency to remind us of Lenin’s celebrated devotion. Yet where Lenin could therefore not listen often to music, we were enabled, even impelled, to do so all the more. Here was an interior subjectivity that spilled over into exteriority, yet retained primacy throughout. Such was also the case in the second movement, albeit with different material and all that flowed from that difference. Much bubbled under and even on the surface, however much one ‘knew’. The shock of transition to the finale was undimmed by familiarity, a path to a defiant humanism that characterises both composer and interpreter. Such white intensity proved as exhilarating a work-out for the mind as for the fingers. One hardly dared breathe, even before the coda’s shock and awe.
The seventh of Busoni’s Elegien made for a perfect encore. You cannot top the Appassionata, but you can certainly do something else. Levit showed how Busoni’s flickering half-lights can, if anything, prove still more expressive from piano than orchestra. However different the means, there remained something subtly Faustian to the bargain. I look forward to hearing him play the Piano Concerto.
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