This is Russian-German pianist Igor Levit’s debut release as an exclusive Sony artist. Nicely designed, its chunky booklet, coated finish outer sleeve and sumptuous recording oozes quality in a way we seemed to be more accustomed to in the 1970s and 80s in classical releases from certain quarters. Pride of ownership isn’t something one associates with CDs much today, but once you’ve found your copy of this package you won’t be parting with it any time soon. There’s not a great deal of information on Igor Levit himself in the booklet, other than that he is a BBC Young Generation Artist. He does however have an excellent website here
, which includes audio clips of this Beethoven release. By all accounts he has been giving highly acclaimed concerts all over Europe and has already been praised by critics as an outstanding pianist for our times.
Filled with beauty and strangeness, Beethoven’s late piano sonatas are extremely rewarding works but can be tough nuts to crack for a variety of reasons. I’ve reviewed a few versions in the last few years, including as part of András Schiff’s penultimate
volumes for the ECM label, in Alfred Brendel’s Decca box (see review
), Louis Lortie for Chandos (see review
), and even HJ Lim on EMI (see review
) which was entertainingly trashed
by Brian Reinhart. I don’t intend going into minutely close comparisons with these in this case, simply since there are so many other recordings which will end up being missed out, each with their own qualities and each with their own bands of supporters - long may this remain so. Once again, I refer collectors to Jens Laurson’s excellent survey of Beethoven cycles
on this site.
Having lived with this set for a while and listened to it on different systems and in contrasting circumstances, I think there is a good way of summing it up. You know when, while watching some serious documentary on a difficult subject like the Theory of Relativity or the Higgs particle, you really have the feeling that now
you understand it - and then, 10 minutes after the programme has concluded, you find yourself once again struggling to come to grips with concepts too complex to maintain as a comprehensible stream of thought in your own mind, let alone something you can explain to your fellow man. Beethoven’s late piano sonatas can be a bit like this in musical terms, but the clarity of Igor Levit’s thinking in this music renders these works not only enjoyable, but, as you listen, entirely comprehensible. The joy of all this is that, having become engrossed and entertained in these luminous and illuminating performances, you can also relish a kind of post-play artistic disbelief and then, goldfish-like, go back and experience it all again.
There might be downsides to such mind-to-mind transparency of communication, and one of these could be a loss of mystery in these pieces. Mystery which might remain locked in interpretative depths is indeed freed, but new mysteries and new solutions emerge. What we acquire is a kind of ideal of how Beethoven would have heard the music in his inner ear, the extremes of range and dynamic rendered with a pureness of expression which transforms each work from a craggy mountain of almost unattainable superhuman creativity into a self-explanatory ‘Ess muss zein’. In this way, Levit’s late Beethoven sonatas are version 2.11 to other recordings’ 2.01, a state of the art in this music’s evolution. Now, there is no arguing that there are always those who will prefer their older versions, and we will all have seen how the new isn’t necessarily always the better, but at the very least in this case I detect no bugs or glitches; at the very most and to coin a phrase, ‘I think we might be on to something’.
If there is any loss, then perhaps it is in that most intangible and subjective of qualities, spirituality? There is no denying Levit’s beauty of touch where Beethoven is on his inner emotional journeys, such as the Adagio sostenuto
which opens the third movement of the Sonata No. 29
, but are these moments where the performing artist has to draw on their own life experiences as well as those of the composer? Indeed, possibly, but comparing Levit with elder statesmen Schiff or Brendel I don’t find either of these plumbing greater depths or extracting more magic from the music. What I also hear further on, from around 10 minutes in, as well as in the opening of the last movement of the Sonata No. 30
is a real feeling for where someone like Chopin might have found some of his ideas. Levit can be forward looking with ease but without losing Beethovenian texture and character. His beauty of touch flows throughout every movement of these sonatas but by no means represents a limp handshake - the steel behind the velvet glove might frequently be held in reserve but can be called upon at a moments notice.
If you have struggled with the mad counterpoint in the final movement of this Hammerklavier
sonata, then this is the place to find out what it’s all about. Levit infuses the music with plenty of passion and a fearsome amount of energy, but still manages to deliver an unprecedented clarity of musical argument. The opening of the whole sonata is fearsomely explosive and you wonder how Levit is going to keep everything going, but the way he plays that fugue in the finale from 2:45 is one of these ‘ah yes’ moments, from which you can reach back to other versions and see where the difficulties lay. Levit uses clear voice leading, but maintains enough weight in the other musical lines to give the significant upper or lower elements a greater sense of logic and connectedness in all dimensions. By contrast, Schiff seems to hack out the outer voices and we’re back to gruff/deaf/shouty aversion Beethoven. Alfred Brendel’s live recording alas lacks the last nth of recorded clarity to make it an experience to relish, and perhaps the closest I’ve heard to this is Richard Goode’s set on the Nonesuch label, though even he doesn’t have quite the digital synergy and sharp observation of sequence and cadence we hear from Levit. Louis Lortie on Chandos
is always very fine and technically superb, but sounds a tad cautious here when compared to Levit. Levit’s performance of this fascinating but densely composed Allegro risoluto
is, for me at least, something of a revelation, and if your resistance to this sonata is the same as mine is for the Grosse Fuge
then this is a place you simply have to visit to banish those demons.
All this clarity is allied to playing of real power and intensity, and contrasts which turn on the tightest of timings. There is also a sense of narrative and structure which seems to connect the sonatas to each other. That moment of real churchliness 1:03 into the second movement of the Sonata No. 28
for instance is somehow echoed and amplified 1:11 into the second movement of the Sonata No. 30
: distant bells being answered by an ethereal church organ from across disparate works. With elegance, flow, poetry and potent delivery throughout, this really is a set which tempts and rewards listening in one go from beginning to end. Movements such as the third of the Sonata No. 30
turn variation form into high art, ready moulded to be taken up by Brahms and others: Levit showing us why they would have been turned on to such a structure with its inviting freedoms and worlds within worlds. The beautiful opening of the Sonata No. 31
can be one laden with rubato and added expression, but Levit hears this as Beethoven remembering little Mozart, creating a classical world observed through the ripples of a stained-glass screen rather than taking up the more romantic reflections of Alfred Brendel. The enigmatic Adagio ma non troppo
of the third movement is something of an experimental recitative and aria, and the luminosity of Levit’s accompanying chords to the arioso
is gorgeous. The subsequent fugue retains this colour, recalling Bach but giving him an operatic sense of drama - Levit’s resonance of tone in the left hand setting the seal on another terrific performance.
The final Sonata No. 32
is a marvellous journey in this performance, as the booklet describes, “[including] the heroic and violent as well as the lovely and the hopeful.” Again, Levit’s touch with the inner voices and sensitivity of weight with those essential harmonic additions heighten the extremes in this music to something beyond common expectation, entering new worlds of emotional association and a feeling of connection to the composer. Much as an unexpected whiff of a long-forgotten perfume might resurrect a raft of memories while walking in the street, so this playing delivers a kind of Einblik
, distilling everything you might have wanted from this music into a striking reality.
OK, so these CDs are contained in the usual fragile and clattery foldout jewel case, and the chunkiness of the booklet is only because the same essay, ‘Dizzying Heights’ by Martin Geck, appears in German, French and English. This is however a lengthy, well-written and interesting placement of these late sonatas into the context of Beethoven’s life and historical circumstances, the pages interspersed with some portraits of the pianist in ruminative poses.
Having put these performances of some of the greatest works in the piano literature up against a big heap of alternatives, some of which haven’t even been mentioned here, I would say this is the
one to have, period. No, I’m not about to ditch Brendel, I still greatly admire much in Schiff’s cycle, and the late sonatas are amongst the strongest in Louis Lortie’s collection. I do however sincerely believe that Igor Levit has raised these works into a new plane of appreciation, and given them a reboot of which Beethoven would be truly proud.
Masterwork Index: Beethoven sonatas 28-32