For a pianist to embark on a complete-works marathon must be a bit like taking the decision to start a family – if you get the timing right, performer and music mature together. In Igor Levit’s case – all the Beethoven Sonatas over eight Wigmore Hall recitals running through to next June, with only the last six works played consecutively – that process is more complicated, in that his recitals and recordings of the final five Sonatas and the Diabelli Variations have played a significant part in forging his considerable reputation.
His return to square one, as it were, is inevitably going to generate much interest on Planet Piano. Yet for all Levit’s self-evident spiritual rapport with the late works, there was no sense in this recital of his encouraging the early- and mid-period Sonatas into an orderly progress to enlightenment. He seemed to live for the moment, revelling in all four’s audaciousness and originality, celebrating differences rather than similarities.
There was a thread of sorts running through the slow movements’ orchestral and vocal potential – the Adagio of Opus 2/1 unfurling an Italianate aria through a gauze of discreet pedaling, the trumpets and drums of Opus 26’s ‘Eroica’-anticipating ‘Funeral March’, the cello-type melody in the ‘Waldstein’ – all suggested rather than reproduced by an ear that has connected completely with the way in which the Piano Sonatas in particular nourish and are nourished by Beethoven’s larger-scale creations.
Levit also reveals an intuitive awareness of the more conventional aspects of structure and melody in Opus 2/1 and Opus 26 compared with the Opus 79 sonate facile, in which the reduction almost ad absurdum of themes releases some brilliantly extended structures. Levit is so confident of his perception of Beethoven’s psyche that his renditions here sounded as though the music was being composed then and there, all filtered through the pianist’s quizzical intelligence, an attractively wry humour, his spontaneity and a beautifully tailored technique that never takes the piano’s limitations for granted.
Levit made sure we heard Opus 2/1’s explosive Sturm und Drang provenance in the first movement, but you had to set against that the veiled romance of the Adagio and his thrilling urgency in the Finale, with some tellingly engineered breaks in the momentum adding to the tension. A lover of variation form, he opened out the fantasy, flirtatiousness and drama of the first movement of Opus 26 (a Sonata with none of its four movements in sonata form), and in the final variation hinted at the piano-resonating process that Beethoven would later explore with epic results. There was a wonderful fragility to Opus 79’s Andante, and Levit conveyed with sly wit the substance emerging out of the Finale’s trivial opening.
It was Levit’s performance of the ‘Waldstein’ that defined the evening, one in which visceral rhythmic bounce in the tightly negotiated first movement – with a sensational compression of energy into the moment of reprise – acting as a counterweight to his majestically conceived, overtly virtuosic playing in the Finale, where form and fantasy jostled for supremacy. If the struggle of the brief Adagio’s big tune to become fully formed as it continually decayed was as clearly imagined as I’ve heard it, the poise of the lone high G delivering the last movement contained all you needed to know about the rightness of Levit’s playing. He is up there with the Beethoven greats.