Considering this was my first time seeing Igor Levit play “in the flesh”, his Wigmore Hall recital was just like meeting an old friend. The Russian-born German pianist has been on my screens and in my headphones more than any other pianist during the crazy last six months. His House Concerts, broadcast from his Berlin flat, stemmed from a spur of the moment decision returning from the grocery store (“Typical Igor – act first, think later”) and spanned 52 consecutive evenings. His marathon stream of Erik Satie’s Vexations, a single page of manuscript but performed 840 times, lasted 15 hours).

Igor Levit © Wigmore Hall
Igor Levit
© Wigmore Hall

In her May interview for The Observer, Fiona Maddocks described Levit as having “a zest for the monumental” and things don’t come much more monumental to pianists than the 32 Beethoven sonatas. I heard the new Sony boxed set and watched all eight streams from his Salzburg Festival cycle. He’s nearing the end of another cycle at Berlin’s Philharmonie, broken up with this Wigmore appearance which featured his favoured opening programme. 

Levit started at the very beginning, with the first published sonata, dedicated to Haydn. Despite its polite, classical style, it bristled with energy, clipped staccatos and an occasional right foot stamp driving the music forward. Leaning low, as if inspecting the keys, Levit seemed to delight in the music emerging from under his fingers. The Prestissimo finale raced along, full of rapier-like parry and thrust. 

The theme and variations which open the Piano Sonata in A flat major, Op.26, were vividly characterised, smiling his way through the syncopations of the fourth variation. Explosive sforzandos were detonated in the Scherzo before a funeral march (“regarding to the death of a hero”) which melded bitter grief with fist-shaking anger, Levit’s left hand flung wide in operatic gesture. Semiquavers tumbled over each other eagerly in the rondo finale. 

Igor Levit © Wigmore Hall
Igor Levit
© Wigmore Hall

The light-hearted Op.79 sonata in G major was full of wit, but it was the barcarolle-like lilt of the central Andante that charmed in its simplicity and tenderness. One could feel the audience's concentration as Levit’s left hand again invited phrases to take wing. 

But it was the mould-breaking Waldstein – the sonata that featured in Levit’s first House Concert – that thrilled the most in this recital. Tapping his thighs beforehand to feel the pulse, the Allegro con brio burst out of the traps at great speed; impetuous, volatile, its narrative told with garrulous excitability. The Adagio molto was serene, played with a meditative, prayerful inwardness. The way it then led into the third movement was like one of those time-lapse natural history films of a bud bursting into blossom, sepals unfurling to release a riot of colour. The Prestissimo coda was as triumphant and life-affirming as I’ve heard.

There was more nature in the cooling encore, the UK premiere of Fred Hersch’s Trees, composed for Levit during lockdown and a chance to draw breath after the fevered Waldstein. Despite the mandatory face masks, I’m sure Levit could detect our smiles.