Igor Levit, pianist du jour, completed his Beethoven sonatas cycle at Wigmore Hall, as is traditional, with the trilogy of Opp. 109, 110 and 111. Levit has received wide acclaim for this cycle with many praising his uncompromising and intellectual approach. He goes beyond his – and his audience's – comfort zone to create programmes and performances of bold contrasts and stark extremes, not always to everyone’s taste (and I admit I found his approach at odds with my taste in this repertoire when I heard the first concert in his cycle), but played with such conviction and fierce concentration that one cannot help but admire his playing, even if one does not agree with everything he does. Such was the popularity of this cycle that he repeated the programme at 10pm and, given his unconventional approach, it is possible this concert was quite different to the earlier one. More kudos then for the sheer stamina, both physical and mental, required to pull off this particular musical feat.

Igor Levit © Gregor Hohenberg
Igor Levit
© Gregor Hohenberg

I first heard Levit in this sonata triptych back in 2013. It seemed a bold programme choice for a young man, yet Levit's assertion that this music was "written to be played" makes perfect sense and is a view I'm sure Beethoven would concur with. Then I felt there was room for development and maturity, important attributes for any young artist in the spring of their professional career. Now I hear an artist who has lived with – and in – the music and has crystallised his own view about it.

He crouches over the piano like an animal coiled for attack, yet the sound in those opening bars of the Sonata in E major, Op.109, was so delicate, so lyrically ethereal, it felt as if the music was emerging from some mystical outer firmament, entirely appropriate for these sonatas which find Beethoven in profoundly philosophical mood. It is music which speaks of shared values and what it is to be a sentient, thinking human being; it “puts us in touch with something we know about ourselves that we might otherwise struggle to find words to describe” (Paul Lewis). The Prestissimo second movement, urgent and anxious in its tempo and atmosphere emphasised by some ominous bass figures, contained Levit’s trademark “shock and awe” stamping fortes and fortissimos, only to find him and the music back in meditative mood for the theme and variations, which reprised the serenity of the opening, the theme spare and prayer-like with more of that wonderfully delicate shading at the quietest end of the dynamic spectrum that he does so well.

The programme, played without an interval or applause between the first two sonatas, allowed the works to flow into one another, fantasy like, and the connections and common themes between each sonata were more discernible – the final-movement variations in the Opp. 109 and 111, the opening invocations of Opp. 109 and 110. The Opus 110 inhabited much of the same soundworld as the previous sonata: the opening movement graceful and finely nuanced, the Allegro rambunctious as befits a movement based on two drinking songs. The transition, via the coda, to the Adagio was finely balanced, the music retreating into that mystical other world again before the fugue rang out in a glorious paean of near-frantic joy.

The final sonata opened with a dark grandeur, powerful and emphatic – again those exaggerated dynamics, a tumult of notes and eerie bass tremolos – yet in the closing movement the contrast could not have been greater, the music ascending to higher realms, the audience hanging on to every note. At times it seemed as if the music had been rewritten, Levit creating his own distinct, sometimes mysterious, always intense, version of Beethoven’s vision. This immense pianistic and philosophical journey ended in a diaphanous cloud of notes, spoken softly, yet with profound intent.