Igor Levit is a Russian-born pianist now living in Germany, winner of several international competitions, who has had, at the age of 26, the temerity to attempt to scale in this, his first commercial recording, the Parnassus of the solo piano repertoire, the last five sonatas of Beethoven. Obviously as outspoken as he is bold, he declares mention of his age off limits: “I don’t mind if people say the way I play Beethoven is rubbish, but I can’t stand it when people say, ‘Oh well it was bound to be rubbish, he should wait another 20 years before playing Beethoven sonatas.’ Either it’s good or it isn’t.” Fair enough, and, anyhow, far from rubbish; there’s been nothing but a chorus of raves since this set appeared late last year. And well earned they are, for these performances embody everything this music calls for: thought, introspection, profundity, variety of expression, and deep emotion alternating with wit and playfulness when the mood swings that way.
Op. 101 begins unprepossessingly, the lilting melody almost stealing in, and yet the way Levit brings it in, his touch light yet firm, accents so nuanced, dynamics so delicately controlled, and the theme so limpidly phrased, you realize he’s taken Beethoven’s instruction to heart, “with the most intimate sentiment.” This is perhaps the most mercurial of these five works, the second movement a march with a radical mood shift, then another in the slow movement, which Levit plays with a hushed beauty that rises in intensity until it bursts into the unbridled exuberance of the last movement. Levit’s ability to characterize these disparate movements with such individuality yet unify the whole piece is an apt harbinger of the performances to follow.
One of the high pleasures of this wonderful set is the pianist’s way with Beethoven’s melodies, which puts paid to the canard he wasn’t a melodist, and a great one at that. The operatic aria— Uchida’s characterization—that is the Hammerklavier’s andante, “very songlike and expressive,” Beethoven instructed, is phrased in long soaring arches. Charles Rosen, in his magisterial study of the Beethoven sonatas, warns against taking the first movement too slow in an attempt to make it sound massive. Appositely, Levit’s Allego has requisite force, granite, and power, but he knows that energy, not mass as such, is what this movement is all about. He also realizes that it’s a mistake to steal the thunder from the great last movement, Beethoven’s Art of the Fugue. Most pianists make the Hammerklavier sound forbidding—hardly inappropriate; but Levit’s ferocity is as joyous as it is galvanizing.
At the start of 109, the cascading melody ripples with gently flowing energy. More than many Levit makes the brief Vivace and Prestissimo together sound like two parts of an implied single movement, and he’s acutely alert to the fantasia elements of this marvelous piece. He is masterly with transitions and large-span structures, the concluding six variations at once keenly individuated yet organically unified, one variation giving way to another with supreme grace and subtlety. “No sonata of Beethoven is more tightly unified,” writes Rosen of the Op. 110, yet “no work has movements of such disparate emotional character.” Levit realizes this unity superlatively by always articulating the themes and the related motifs so as to play up their relationships, while his way with the varying moods of the fuga makes manifest the composer’s desire for unity within diversity, and he finishes with a grand flourish.
And the Parnassian pinnacle that is the 111? The first movement is all dynamic force and logic, head to the second’s heart, firmament to the variations’ heaven. The Maestoso has more than enough febrile energy and restless drive, yet there’s no hint of Levit’s trying to turn it into a tour de force of virtuosity (though his dynamic window is very wide). In the second movement variations his command of long-range structure defies criticism and very nearly commentary: you’ll rarely hear this music essayed with such sunlit clarity and delicacy. Initially his tempo might seem a bit on the slow side, but any objections are soon silenced, first, because his tempo relationships are superbly judged and, second, because we soon realize that he merely wants the slight expansiveness at the outset to give himself room to move later on. Once again I marvel at the seamlessness of his transitions between the variations and at his masterly ability to adjudicate short-term effect and long-range structure. This is a fittingly transcendent climax to a great cycle, so much so that there is no real need to indulge comparisons. Suffice it to say that these performances can stand proud with some of the greatest ever recorded, from Schnabel to Serkin to Brendel to Rosen to Goode to the recent Paul Lewis.
Thanks to the engineers for clean, clear, warm, and focused sound, and especially to whoever at Sony had the really brilliant idea of making the pauses between the sonatas quite long, on the order of thirty seconds or so. Other companies please take note!