Without any familiar ‘titled’ Sonatas to anchor the fifth recital in his Beethoven series at Wigmore Hall, Igor Levit turned to three early and one late-early (more transitional) works, all four a young man’s music giving us a clear idea of the scale of his invention and ambition, and played by Levit as such.
In his previous recitals, Levit has established the character of each Sonata with refreshing insight, and that spirit was very much at work here, backed up by a brilliance that made the various Presto, Prestissimo and Vivace markings both a virtuoso display and a vital expressive tool. The brilliance also emphasised the games Beethoven plays with form and memory, which Levit delivered with considerable panache. Whether he manages to sustain this Schnabel-like directness, we will just have to wait to discover.
The first half of his programme was dominated by two long and deeply felt slow movements, both played with prescient weight and inwardness, the solemn walking bass of Opus 2/2 gradually surrendering its imperturbability to become a vital part of the unfolding drama, and the histrionics of Opus 10/3’s Largo e mesto erupting only fitfully into the nocturnal landscape – Levit’s playing in this movement was particularly distant and dream-like. In their way, both these Largos are as disruptive as their preceding first movements, in which Levit went to town with the way in which Beethoven keeps confounding expectations.
Slow movements do not really figure in the Opus 10/2 and Opus 31/3 Sonatas, but sharp wit does, especially in the ultra-condensed 10/2, which Levit played with light-hearted brio and a staggering amount of detail. Levit’s overall view of the Sonatas came into focus with 31/3. You could hear the expansion of its opening gambit anticipating Opus 109 and still take in the way it looks back to the tropes of the early sonatas, and his fantastically supple playing in the great Scherzo rippled with energy. If sometimes this chapter in the cycle had seemed a bit airless, that in part was down to the relentless virtuosity of the music, but the Largo e mesto and the 31/3 Scherzo alone showed the calibre of Levit’s engagement with Beethoven.