BEETHOVEN Complete Piano Sonatas

Igor Levit

(Sony Classical)

The Gramophone Review

Six years ago Igor Levit burst on to the recording scene, making his debut with Beethoven’s last five sonatas at the age of just 26. Now he completes that cycle, adding the remaining 27 sonatas to Opp 101, 106 and 109 111 (which he hasn’t re-recorded); these have been set down over the past three years, the most recent in January 2019; Sony has done wonders in providing a consistently fine sound, detailed and natural-sounding, across two different venues, in Hanover and Neumarkt – and so has his piano technician. The notes, too, by Anselm Cybinski, chime with Levit’s intellectual world view.

So far, so good: what of the music-making? That he is so inside these pieces will come as no surprise, for he has been performing complete cycles around the world for some time now. As you’d predict from an artist who combines acute intelligence and technical panache, it’s utterly absorbing. It’s also a cycle that doesn’t have favourites – Levit feels equally committed to every single piece. It doesn’t necessarily follow that everything is a triumph, but his attention to detail is very beguiling.

‘Above all, there’s that sense of being completely at one with Beethoven himself. And that, in the end, is what makes this such a magnificent achievement’

Take, for instance, the Op 7 Sonata, not usually a headline act in concert programmes, but Levit finds an energy and sparkle that lights it up, the repeated left-hand E flat never allowed a moment’s heaviness, while the development delights in its Haydnesque combination of gruff humour, skittish shifts of harmonic direction, dramatic juxtapositions of extreme dynamics and, of course, silence. In the Largo, con gran espressione Levit reveals Beethoven the visionary – for the first time it struck me how much this prefigures the opening of the Fourth Concerto. The Allegro is darker and more uneasy than Goode’s and in the chewy intensity of the Minore section Levit makes you aware of how much Schubert learnt from this. The minor-key episode in the rondo finale has drama but never becomes metallic in tone.

Space precludes me from too much in-depth analysis, so what follows are a few observations. From the very opening of the first sonata of Op 2 he draws you into Beethoven’s world of fierce unpredictability, alive to the unease of the opening Allegro and the subversion of the menuet genre in the third movement, while the Prestissimo finale has a tremendous clarity despite its pace (it never feels merely fast). In the second sonata he reminds us at every turn that Haydn was Beethoven’s teacher. And the slow movements of all three are beautifully judged, as is the irresistibly gossamer Scherzo of No 2. The finale of No 3, with its treacherous chordal writing, is also dispatched with tremendous panache.

If his reading of the Moonlight’s opening movement doesn’t quite have the hypnotic quality conjured by Osborne, he reminds us that its Op 27 sibling is every bit as groundbreaking. From a perfectly poised opening, he gives the quietly powerful arpeggios of the second movement a sense of desperation that is in stark contrast to the solemnity of the third; and the hurtling momentum of the finale never becomes bombastic.

The Op 10 set also has some very fine things in it – the slow movement of the first has a true quietness in its soul, which makes the Prestissimo finale all the more thrilling, while he brings to the Allegretto middle movement of No 2 an edgy playfulness. But the opening movement of Op 10 No 1 sounds too pushed, making the songful second subject sound rushed, certainly compared to Goode. The witty repartee between the two hands in the finale of Op 10 No 2 is also too breathless for my liking. But the Largo e mesto of No 3 has real desolation, followed by a Menuetto of wonderful tenderness.

There are other moments where I think his tempos are too hasty – the finales of Op 26 and Opp 78 and 79, for instance, or the heady rush that is ‘Le retour’ in Les adieux. But offsetting this is that sense of engagement with the smallest details. Just sample the closing moments of that first movement of Les adieux, in which he builds to an almost unbearable pitch of yearning, which is then abruptly cut off by the last two chords.

When that energy is put to good use it can emphasise the visceral thrill of Beethoven’s writing. The Appassionata (a work I can take or leave) sounds new minted. From the opening phrase, the piece unfolds with a complete sense of inevitability, the first-movement development thrilling. And how songful the Andante con moto’s theme sounds, Levit always illuminating both texturally and emotionally. He relishes the extremes as we move into the finale but such is the focus, the unblinking sense of inevitability about how it goes, that it never feels forced.

Another highlight is the Waldstein, the repeated C major left-hand chords underpinning a tensile energy that runs through the entire opening movement. But it’s not about momentum: Levit colours and shapes it with such finesse – withdrawing the sound to a whisper and then building to a great billowing wave. The Adagio molto is remarkable in the way he stills the mood, conjuring an atmosphere that sounds almost like a postscript to Schubert’s Winterreise. As the music gradually comes back to life his finale is engagingly ebullient.

It also says much for Levit’s maturity that the last five sonatas still sound very much of a piece in terms of the way he thinks. Yes, there are moments where I don’t entirely agree with his decisions – the opening of Op 109 is a little careful-sounding, while moments in the variations of Op 111’s Arietta are a touch on the slow side – but the Hammerklavier’s fugue is still a thing of magnificent power and, above all, there’s that sense of being completely at one with Beethoven himself. And that, in the end, is what makes this such a magnificent achievement.

(Harriet Smith, Awards issue 2019)

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