Igor Levit’s deeply rewarding Beethoven enriches Musikfest Berlin

GermanyGermany Musikfest Berlin [2] – Beethoven: Igor Levit (piano). Philharmonie, Berlin, 30.8.2020. (MB)

Igor Levit © Peter Adamik

Beethoven – Piano Sonata No.24 in F-sharp major, Op.78; Piano Sonata No.4 in E-flat major, Op.7; Piano Sonata No.9 in E-flat major, Op.14 No.1; Piano Sonata No.10 in G major, Op.14. No.2; Piano Sonata No.26 in E-flat major, Op.81a, ‘Les Adieux’

Whatever equal temperament, ‘common sense’, or anything else might say, any pianist will tell you that, leaving aside absolute pitch, an all-black F-sharp major chord will feel and sound quite different from one made up of white notes or a mixture. It certainly did here, the rarity in every sense of the tonality immediately apparent, drawing one in both to Beethoven’s short introduction to the Op.78 Sonata and thereafter to the first-movement exposition proper, which unquestionably grew from those magical, pregnant four bars. Intimacies were whispered and sung, sforzandi registered without exaggeration, all part of a greater whole envisaged and communicated by Igor Levit. Surprises in the development sprang from deepest Romanticism, be it that of Beethoven or his interpreter. All was equally fresh in the recapitulation. In the second of this extraordinary sonata’s two movements, humour both skittish and vehement was brought to life by the transcendental technique of a Liszt or a Prokofiev (so it sounded; it was, of course, actually that of a Levit). A one-off surprise at the close amused the pianist still more than it did us: a winning sign of humanity, in the unlikely case of anyone requiring it.

The E-flat major Sonata, Op.7, hails from a different world: key, period, mood, and so on. There was no question, however, that its first movement also was Beethoven – and mature Beethoven, in a reading that felt no special need to dwell on his antecedents. At times, indeed, the music sounded bracingly, brazenly modern, without that ever precluding charm or tenderness. Once again, this was a protean whole, rhythm generative yet ever founded upon harmony. Levit maintained the slow movement’s essential simplicity of utterance at a daringly slow tempo. Beethoven was rendered strange once again, through fidelity and understanding, in a performance implacable and fantastical, intimate and forbidding. In the third movement, Beethoven and Levit in indissoluble partnership unleashed a dynamo of motivic and harmonic development, just as inextricably interlinked. The white heat of its trio was such as if to encircle Brünnhilde – and perhaps even to repel Siegfried. Like the first movement, the finale sounded remarkably mature, with little sense of (post)Mozartian throwback. Gruff and boisterous, it also reached for the stars: patently Beethovenian stars, in Beethoven’s tonal universe, discovered as if for the first time. Once again, Levit trusted Beethoven and Beethoven more than repaid that trust.

The opening of the E major Sonata, Op.14 No.1, was necessarily made to sound as if it were the easiest thing in the world — until one listened, when the truest artistry was revealed. Voicing, as directed as it was exquisitely of the moment, was married to telling variety of articulation (never for its own sake). I found myself especially taken by the understatement of the development, not least since it had me realise what a vulgar mess I had once made of it. The second movement was a tale of Mendelssohnian melancholy disrupted and restored. In not entirely dissimilar fashion, the finale’s opening lightness had the vehemence of its central episode emerge all the more meaningful and necessary.

The Op.14 No.2 Sonata made for a lovely companion piece in practice as well as in theory, the freshness of its first-movement Romantic lyricism beautifully judged. Tiggerish in its amiability, it led with all the inevitability of a grander work to its central Andante. It is all too easy to end up doing things to this movement, but not here in a reading whose seemingly infinite charm was born again of honesty (Beethoven and Levit), not subterfuge. Taken attacca, the scherzo finale thereby heightened its predecessor’s closing joke. It proved a performance full of contrast and incident, which yet remained unerringly part of a greater whole.

A deeply poignant introduction both prepared the way for and was dispelled by the Emperor Beethoven of Les Adieux’s exposition. It is not so simple, of course; when is it? Interplay between such tendencies proved the very motor of the music; it was, though, quite a starting-point. The second movement, ‘L’Absence’, revealed another side to the Romantic moon: mysterious, yet familiar; quietly insistent, yet richly exploratory. The finale was in many respects similar, uniting tendencies from both preceding movements, yet keenly attuned to its own function and specificity. Exultant, even ecstatic, Beethoven the sublime poured forth like proverbial molten lava, yet with none of the lazy clichés my insufficient words might suggest.

As an encore, Levit offered August Rosenbrunnen by his friend, Malakoff Kowalski. There was here a sense of the improvisatory that was anything but arbitrary. Unquestionably piano music, this was clearly writing, as well as performance, born of deep love for the instrument. If there were a certain post-Debussyan quality to some of the harmonies, their function seemed to me quite different. This was a song of dark passions and liberation, though whether in or from those passions remained an intriguingly open question.

Mark Berry

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