Is it time to give Beethoven a rest? Piano prodigy Igor Levit built his early career on Beethoven, making an audacious recording debut at the age of 25 with a double-disc set of the composer’s last five piano sonatas. In 2019, Levit added the first 27 for a complete boxed set of sonatas. He has taken them around the world, winning plaudits from Carnegie Hall to Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie. For his inaugural appearance in Prague, at this year’s Firkušný Festival, he played the final three (30–32, Opp.109-111) straight through, stopping only between 31 and 32 to take a quick bow.

Igor Levit
© Pražské jaro | Ivan Malý

Given Levit’s penchant for lengthy performances – during the pandemic lockdown, he live-streamed a performance of Erik Satie’s 20-hour Vexations, pausing only for food and bathroom breaks – the format was no surprise. Nor was the intensity and technical brilliance that Levit brought to the stage. But the impression he left was that of an artist who has said everything he has to say about a certain repertoire, and is now mostly going through the motions.

There is no question about Levit’s absolute mastery of the sonatas. His depth of understanding is clear in his authoritative voice, his skill dazzling in virtuoso runs up and down the keyboard, and his interpretation almost kaleidoscopic in its invention and variety. Like someone turning on a faucet, he can instantly become lyrical, contemplative, playful – whatever mood strikes him, with consummate clarity and fluency.

And mood is in many ways what Levit’s performances are about. He regards the notes on the page as a starting point, playing with the same elasticity that characterizes his style, arms and hands sailing off the keyboard like birds taking flight. Of course, every serious artist is entitled to his own treatment of the music. But at least in this performance, Levit constricted rather than illuminated it.

Igor Levit in the Rudolfinum
© Pražské jaro | Ivan Malý

Mostly the evening was a study in contrasts – the brooding opening of no. 30 abruptly catching fire in the second movement, a relatively colorless start to no. 31 blossoming into a rainbow in the Scherzo. Contrasts are a key element in these sonatas, but not the only element, which risks reducing them to two-dimensional works. This effect was reinforced by a similar approach to tempo, which fell almost entirely into two categories: idling or racing at top speed. That was especially pronounced in no. 32, which opened with explosive, almost mischievous runs, then lapsed into near-somnambulance in the second movement, so solemn and plodding that at times one had to wonder if there was going to be a next note.

Playing the final three sonatas in one sitting would seem to offer an opportunity to follow some through threads, if not in thematic ideas, then at least in compositional development and innovation. But the sense in this performance was of trying to get through them as fast as possible. The sophistication and nuance Levit showed in the slower passages were like a glimpse of what might have been. Overall, this felt like a breakneck ride in a runaway car where you can only hope that the driver knows what he’s doing.

Levit is an unquestioned musical genius and bold political activist who makes as much news away from the keyboard as he does on it, a courageous and admirable stance for a classical artist. It’s refreshing to see him take an equally unconventional approach to the music, but in terms of repertoire, is it time to move on?