No.1 in F-minor, Op.2/1
No.12 in A-flat, Op.26
No.25 in G, Op.79
No.21 in C, Op.53 (Waldstein)
Igor Levit (piano)
Reviewed by: Alexander Hall
Reviewed: 16 September, 2020
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
Almost four years ago to the day Igor Levit gave the self-same programme in this venue, as part of a cycle of all of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas. As an opening roll of the dice, this combination was back and remains a reliable and revealing introduction to the keyboard journey on which Beethoven embarked with his F-minor Sonata in 1795. Yes, there are the nods to Mozart in the slow movement and to Haydn, its dedicatee, in the Minuet, but the blustering Finale comes completely out of nowhere.
In this movement and elsewhere Levit was in the business of administering shocks to the system. The concluding Prestissimo took off at a whirlwind pace, bringing to mind in its untrammelled fury the Opus 129 Rondo alla ingharese, otherwise known as ‘Rage over a lost penny’, Levit’s head bobbing up and down in “I told you so!” mode.
The sheer physicality of his presence was especially striking throughout: in the opening Allegro of the F-minor his head was often bent over the keyboard, lending extra emphasis to the imposing tread in the left hand; that same hand lifted up playfully during the concluding Vivace of Opus 79; the left leg elevated during the ‘Funeral March’ of Opus 26, with the toes almost perpendicular at one point; the sleeves of his sweater rolled back ostentatiously for the slow movement of the ‘Waldstein’.
Opus 26 is a good demonstration of the way Beethoven tore up the rule book. The opening Andante consists of a theme and five variations, there follows a Scherzo and Trio, and then – the ultimate surprise – a grand ‘Funeral March’, much beloved of Chopin, with a Finale which is over and done with before it has properly got going. Not one of these movements is in sonata form. Levit had the full measure of the piece, the opening theme stated quite gravely but with the mood lightening as the pace quickened, colour deployed very effectively, with the fourth variation reminiscent of a tiptoe through dewy grass. In the Scherzo Levit was alive to the composer’s typical don’t-mess-with-me attitude; in the ‘Funeral March’ he relished the chilling character of the trills that simulate drum-rolls, the sforzandos ringing out defiantly, but then came one of those breath-catching moments as the dynamics were pared back magically at the end. The Finale was akin to a powerful steam engine announcing its approach from the distance, its fiery furnace delivering seemingly inexhaustible energy, all bells and whistles, until it finally disappeared in a puff of smoke.
Just occasionally I was reminded of Faust’s entreaty – “Verweile doch, du bist so schön” (Stay a while, you are so beautiful) – for though we frequently had the sweep, the rough-hewn boulders of granite and the characteristic impatience of youth, moments of relaxation were rare. One such instance came in the central Andante of Opus 79 where Levit took his time over the pliant G-minor meditation. And if I single out the dream-like transition to the Finale of the ‘Waldstein’, it is because I have often felt that the work’s subtitle in French – ‘L’Aurore’ – is much more apt than the reference to the Sonata’s dedicatee, Count Waldstein. In Levit’s hands, this was as soft and gentle as
baby’s breath, an awareness of limbs slowly being stretched in the early-morning sunlight, all senses gradually engaged. The arrival of this thaumaturgic daybreak came after an especially urgent opening movement, the notes flying off the keys like a swarm of angry bees.
There is no doubting Levit’s big-boned approach to Beethoven. This was an evening of thrilling, indeed at times dangerous pianism. And if in the concluding Prestissimo he drove the tempo beyond the point of clear articulation, who can gainsay that this was a composer who worked best when he dabbled, as he frequently did, in dynamite.