Igor Levit is, along with Daniil Trifonov, the pianist du jour. Lauded for his disc of the Goldberg Variations and Diabelli Variations and Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated, and with a slew of critical superlatives for his debut disc of late Beethoven piano sonatas, Levit is a pianist who concerns himself with the most serious edifices of piano literature, while Trifonov tends towards the romantic virtuoso repertoire.

Igor Levit © Gregor Hohenberg
Igor Levit
© Gregor Hohenberg

Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas represent the loftiest Himalayan peaks of the repertoire, both in terms of the arc of their composition (three distinct periods which mirror significant stages in the composer’s life, artistically and emotionally), and the demands these works place on the pianist. The complete Beethoven cycle, a performance of all the piano sonatas, usually over eight concerts, is Herculean task, not to be undertaken lightly. It fully tests the mettle of any performer, but the perennial appeal of presenting these works in a cycle is a mark of their significance and the special reverence they have accrued.

Last night, Igor Levit embarked on his Beethoven sonatas cycle at the Wigmore Hall. Eschewing a strictly chronological survey, the concert opened with the youthful Sonata in F minor, Op.2 no. 1. Dedicated to Haydn, the composer’s former teacher, this work is anything but “youthful” in its conception: a grand four-movement work of dramatic intensity. Levit seized on the opening, “rocketing” motif, delivering it with an urgent crispness, complemented by ruggedly earnest if rather too obviously declamatory chords, all of which propelled us through the first movement with hardly a moment to catch breath. The slow movement proved a serene salve to the frenetic opening and here Levit revealed persuasive tonal mastery and his ability to execute a fluid, silken cantabile with precision and elegance. The movement was signed off with two witty chords, a gesture which became one of the hallmarks of this performance throughout the evening. The third and fourth movements reprised the urgency and drama of the opening, with clear voicing but regrettably some loss of precision and shape due to the rather relentless tempo.

The opening movement of Op.26 finds Beethoven in a more genial temper, in a theme and variations which (for me at least) look forward to Schubert’s Impromptu, Op.142 no. 2. Levit gave each variation distinctive character while retaining a strong sense of the opening theme, and his sense of wit and humour, briefly evident in the opening sonata, came to the fore here. Even in the minor key variation, there was a sense of playfulness in the placing and articulation of notes. The Scherzo was a fast-paced but liltingly syncopated dance, while the funeral march third movement was darkly serious rather than majestic, its tempo occasionally tending towards ponderous. The finale was another whirlwind, the opening measures emerging in a mist of sound, but the once again the choice of tempo led to some loss of clarity.

The Sonata in G major, Op.79 is considered, alongside its companion sonata Op.78, to be a “sonata facile” in the manner of Mozart’s famous C major Sonata, K545, and for many young pianists, this is their first encounter with Beethoven’s piano sonatas. In Levit’s hands, this work was transformed into a work of sophisticated romanticism, with creative use of dynamics in the first movement, while the Andante was an elegant song without words. Occasionally aggressive fortes and heavy bass interjections threatened to disturb joyous tone of this work, but overall it was an appealing interpretation.

According to Beethoven biographer William Lenz, the Sonata Op.53 “Waldstein” is an “Eroica symphony for the piano” and is among the most thrillingly brilliant of Beethoven’s middle-period works. It demonstrates Beethoven’s use of the full compass of the piano (by the time of its composition he had a more sophisticated and robust instrument to experiment with), his juxtaposition of themes (the toccata-like first subject contrasts with a chorale-like second theme) and daring use of harmony and modulation to remote keys (the second subject is in the radiant key of E major). Levit’s account was exemplary, and if the throbbing quavers of the first subject were a little too driven, the second subject was an expressive hymn. The real pleasure came in the slow movement, in Levit’s singing cantabile and the delicacy with which he allowed the fanfare motif of the finale to emerge from the ethereal world of the Andante before giving it full rein in a grandiose peaen of joy.

This was an impressive start to Levit’s Beethoven cycle, and if at times the playing was a little too obvious with extreme shifts between forcefulness and lyricism, there is no doubting this pianist’s intelligent and distinctive approach to this repertoire.