Sometimes a performance is so overwhelmingly engaging, so compellingly beautiful and masterfully played, that there’s little one can do but register it as an epiphanal experience. Igor Levit’s interpretation of four piano sonatas from Beethoven’s first decade in Vienna at the Lucerne Festival was one such concert.

Igor Levit © Priska Ketterer | Lucerne Festival
Igor Levit
© Priska Ketterer | Lucerne Festival

Levit opened with the Piano Sonata no. 17 in D minor, “Tempest” (1802), whose Largo began as slowly and quietly as to sound almost inaudible. Yet gaining momentum, its variations in volume slid between dangling voids of that silence and powerful energy. In the Adagio, Levit seemed to be in conversation with the Steinway for the first of many times, his raised eyebrows seeming to query the instrument, “wait, have you heard me?” A free hand might move as briefly as a dancer's in front of his face, or make a graceful sweep over the stretcher bar of the piano console itself. In the Allegretto, which varied between melody as light as fairy dust and something robust, Levit explored a full range of expressions.

By contrast, Beethoven's Sonata no. 11 in B flat major (1799-1800) took off at a furious speed. But its slower tempi again drew the pianist into a kind of conversation with the piano; there were the raised eyebrows, playfulness of unique accents, and smiles as he got things just right. The Adagio was somewhat less transparent, but his Minuet, lively and infinitely sweet. Levit stretched his legs beyond the pedals to reposition himself comfortably, and returning to his element, raised his left hand emphatically while still in the throes of the Rondo.

Igor Levit © Priska Ketterer | Lucerne Festival
Igor Levit
© Priska Ketterer | Lucerne Festival

The Sonata no. 3 in C major (1794-95) also began vigorously, its Allegro con brio was dynamically played, then contrasted with something that sounded precious, if idle, an expression that Levit rendered totally his own. In the Scherzo, he threw his hands up as, again, in conversation, “what now?”, before he drove the keys unrelentingly into the Allegro assai, and us in the audience to the edge of our seats. 

Lastly, he performed the No. 8 in C minor, “Pathétique” (1797-99), which resounded fully as it explored contrasts between two voices at its start. In the Adagio cantabile, Levit’s hands rolled over the keys with a nimble grace, sometimes attacking them from a considerable height, even from his frequent posture: head lowered like a top-heavy comma over, and very close to, the keyboard. The Rondo was undeniable evidence of the lyricism in Levit’s DNA, while in this last of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, there was something of the whole world: passion, remorse, delicacy, the rare, exquisite and even pedestrian. There could hardly be a more three-dimensional musical expression, and when the pianist stood downstage after the performance, he deservedly took thunderous applause.

Igor Levit © Priska Ketterer | Lucerne Festival
Igor Levit
© Priska Ketterer | Lucerne Festival

In short, in over a good 80 minutes, playing the tens of thousands of notes Levit had committed to memory was an astounding achievement in itself, but the subtleties he put into his conversation with four such highly demanding and emotive piano works was a true marvel, and likely paved inroads into what might well serve a whole generation of interpreters to come. No doubt, however: if Beethoven himself had been in the hall, he, too, would have been beaming.

*****