Igor Levit, Wigmore Hall | reviews, news & interviews
Igor Levit, Wigmore Hall
Igor Levit, Wigmore Hall
Fiery, bold readings delivered with precision and focus
Igor Levit began his recording career with Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas, and his deeply felt, impressively mature readings made his name. Now he is performing a full cycle at the Wigmore Hall, and his take on the earlier sonatas turns out to be very much in the same spirit. There is little sense of Classical reserve in Levit’s early Beethoven; instead everything is performed in an intensely expressive style. It’s impulsive and unpredictable, with huge contrasts of dynamic and tempo. Sometimes the results feel counterintuitive, but they are always compelling.
The ‘Tempest’ Sonata (op. 31, no. 2) begins in quiet, rising arpeggios, which Levit delivered in a hushed whisper, his attack on each note crystal clear, but the phrases held together through generous, but judicious, pedalling. The Allegro arrived as an eruption, the contrast intense but precisely calculated for maximum effect. Levit presents thematic statements with bold, dynamic emphasis, but his approach to development sections is more revealing. Every phrase is inflected and propelled through subtle rubato, but tempo and texture changes between phrases are more sudden, previous thoughts set aside as the music moves off in a new direction. Yet somehow a consistency is retained, perhaps through the sheer elegance of Levit’s melodic playing, or through the propulsive energy behind each phrase.
Those contrasts and shifts were even more evident in the earlier op. 22 Sonata, where phrases are shorter and dynamic changes more frequent. But, again, a feeling of broad melodic contours held the constantly changing textures together. Levit actively interprets every phrase, and his readings seem all the more sophisticated when Beethoven’s inspiration drops. When, in the first movement development, Beethoven simply presents the same idea repeatedly in different keys, Levit brings a new texture and mood to each, now warm and ebullient, now cold and brittle.
Going back into the earliest sonatas, with op. 2 no. 3, only intensifies this effect. Levit’s approach to 18th-century Beethoven (pictured left, portrait by Joseph Neesen) could hardly be further from historically informed practice, with every tempo change, dynamic and articulation exploited to the full. This was the most volcanic and impulsive performance of the evening, but, as ever, the sense of epic scale that Levit applied was always supported by his generous, clear tone and almost infallible technique.
The familiarity of the ‘Pathétique’ made Levit’s distinctive approach seem all the more iconoclastic, but also emphasised how his interpretive ideas come directly from the music itself. As in the ‘Tempest’, the contrast between the slow introduction and the main allegro was sudden and shocking. But the allegro itself was equally complex and varied, with Levit unconcerned by the lack of tempo changes and the more modest dynamic indications, continuing his ever-changing textures and moods. Levit’s approach to ornaments in this first movement was indicative; there was no sense of holding back, every note, however short, is given equal emphasis, continuing the smooth, unambiguous melodic line. The slow movement offered a rare moment of repose, with Levit focusing squarely on the beauty of the melody, before the Rondo finale brought the evening to a compelling close. Levit has a tendency, especially in final movements, to accelerate into cadences, and then punch out the final chords. In other hands, the coda of the ‘Pathétique’ might underwhelm as a recital ending, but Levit’s keen sense of drama and ability to intensify the music in an instant brought the ideal weight to these otherwise modest closing gestures.
- Igor Levit’s Beethoven Sonata cycle continues at Wigmore Hall on 30 January 2017: https://wigmore-hall.org.uk/whats-on/igor-levit-201701301930
- Read more classical music reviews on theartsdesk
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