There can be no better reason to see a concert of Beethoven than to be offered a fresh point of view. I must admit, I usually think of classical sonatas as two important musical journeys separated by an inconvenient lay-over, but listening to Julia Fischer and Igor Levit, I heard these sonatas differently.

Julia Fischer © Felix Broede | Decca
Julia Fischer
© Felix Broede | Decca
As a pair they’ve been playing Beethoven’s ten sonatas for violin and piano throughout the season, in Munich, Berlin, Paris, Zurich and now London. Attending a pre-concert talk, I asked them what they’d learned from playing with each other, to which Levit replied tersely: the Beethoven violin sonatas. This is certainly true for Fischer, who pointed out that she’d had to pick up two of the sonatas especially for the cycle and they both agreed that there’s no interpretative end-goal for this, or indeed any music; they’ll go on learning and re-evaluating these sonatas as long as they play them. As a listener I took this approach with me into the concert hall to see whether their performance would allow me to hear something different in this music.

The first four Sonatas (the Op.12 set and Op.23) are unequivocally sonatas for violin and piano and I began listening to the first focussing on the relationship between the two. Fischer and Levit held a healthy balance of power, each aware of when the other was in control; just before the end of that first sonata Levit signalled to Fischer to be quieter and she responded, immediately. It was so refreshing to see that they were still working out their interpretation as they performed and that they respect each other’s authenticity. Fischer thinks that the sonatas are 70% piano and 30% violin and she would know, considering that she’s learned them all, as both violinist and pianist! At times it felt like she was playing Levit’s part with him as she brought the violin in and out of focus, but Fischer didn’t shy away from being the public face of the operation, dividing her attention between both the audience and Levit in the course of most phrases. However, in the middle movements she seemed closer to Levit, looking over his shoulder as she played, for long passages at a time. Together they made these movements feel intimate and crucially, more important than the outer movements.

Igor Levit © Felix Broede
Igor Levit
© Felix Broede

The busy opening sonata-form movements and the bustling closing rondos are self-consciously musical acts, literally; the musical material is performed and directed by the conventions of the structure. Despite repeats and reprisals, they’re like conveyor belts, always driving forwards, taking the music and the musicians with them. In these, Fischer and Levit conjured the sense of a theatrical stage, packed with a chorus, orchestra, lighting and lavish sets, but as they arrived at the middle movements, it was as if the stage had been cleared, the lighting dimmed, leaving only two voices. Finally we’d left the crowds and the noise behind and arrived at the heart of the sonata; Fischer and Levit sensed that too. I saw it in the wrinkling of Fischer’s brow and as Levit cocked his head in moments of passion, I saw that these central movements allowed them to speak more clearly, to say something of themselves; to express and share their emotions.

Fischer and Levit made me realise that these sonatas are not journeys striving for the end, as we’re always told with Beethoven, but tantalising trips to the heart, to a place where we, the audience can take a moment to express and share our emotions. Their interpretative end-goal may be forever beyond the horizon, but in this performance they achieved something often elusive to musicians and artists of all types: meaning. 

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