Piano Sonata No.30 in E, Op.109
Piano Sonata No.31 in A flat, Op.110
Piano Sonata No.32 in C minor, Op.111
Igor Levit (piano)
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 2 October, 2013
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall
The Southbank Centre did well to get Igor Levit to open its latest International Piano Series. I first heard him in April at Wigmore Hall, and was very impressed. Since then, this 26-year-old Russian-born pianist, who has lived most of his life in Germany, has been signed exclusively to Sony Classical (and has a new recording of the ‘late’ Beethoven pianos sonatas under his belt). Not bad for a current BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist. People are taking him very seriously, and after this exceptional recital it is clear why.
I often wonder why any pianist would want to tackle Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas in one go, and attempts frequently give off a strong whiff of soul-bearing hubris, which is not at all what they are about. But you quickly became aware of Igor Levit as above all the medium for the message, which he delivered in playing of an insight and musicality that would be remarkable in someone twice his age. If Levit continues to play at this exalted level, with his degree of technical facility, there is no doubt that he will be one of the great musicians of our time.
His stage presence is modest and self-contained, his way of engaging with the keyboard pliant and organic; and apart from any other considerations of his virtuosity, he commands a ravishing singing tone that can bend phrases with vocal finesse. He geared the opening of Opus 109 with limpid clarity – it was as though the listener was coming into a conversation already in progress – building to a cathartic sense of release at its restatement, and in its marcato athleticism, the Prestissimo second movement seemed like a six batted over from the ‘Hammerklavier’. The variations of the final movement confirmed the inwardness of Levit’s playing. It was as though he’d come upon a secret text that Beethoven’s hymn-like theme sets, fitting it to all the nuances and inflections of Levit’s supremely, tactfully expressive playing, where nothing was overdone or histrionic.
In a way that linked all three works for Levit has a natural feel for how each of their last movements reach a plateau of contemplative pause before moving on to the final ascent – in Opus 109 the trills that made not just the piano but the hall a sounding board that hummed with energy; in Opus 110, Levit gave the famous sequence of nine G major chords a putting-down-roots resonance that finally settled the ‘arioso dolente’ and made possible the spread of energy through the second fugue into the rapture of the closing bars; and in Opus 111, the stasis of the first batch of trills (after the first four variations) and Levit’s control of their release into the final ones and its trill-led numinous evaporation were expressed in musicianship of a very high order.
Levit doesn’t impose himself on the music. His subliminal suggestions are there, but only so we get the most out of it. It was extraordinary and unforgettable, this young artist with an old soul explaining these time-bending works with such candour and wisdom.