Igor Levit’s star is rising fast: a BBC New Generation Artist, an exclusive recording deal with Sony Classics, and a debut CD of Beethoven’s late piano sonatas have already brought this 26-year-old pianist attention and acclaim, and on Tuesday evening he opened the 2013/14 International Piano Series at London’s Southbank Centre with a performance of Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas to a full house.

Igor Levit © Felix Broede
Igor Levit
© Felix Broede

In interviews and in performance, Levit comes across as a deep thinker, with an intellectual curiosity that has led him not only to the music of Beethoven but also Morton Feldman, Frederic Rzewski, and Josquin. Some may claim that at 26 he is still too young to consider tackling the highest peaks of the piano repertoire, Beethoven’s piano sonatas, but he counters this with the assertion that one should play these great works because they were “written to be played”.

Beethoven’s final three piano sonatas as considered to be some of the most profoundly philosophical music, which speaks of shared values, and what it is to be a sentient, thinking human being. From the memorable, lyrical opening of the Op. 109 to the final fugue, that most life-affirming and solid of musical devices, of the Op. 110, that paean of praise, to the “ethereal halo” that is contained in some of the writing of the Arietta of the Op. 111, the message and intent of this music is clear. The last duo sonatas for piano and violin, and piano and cello, and the late quartets are all hewn from the same materials: this is music which comes from another place, and from a composer who has achieved a state of acceptance in life, but not resignation. They are not valedictory works in the way Schubert’s last piano sonatas are.

Levit appeared somewhat nervous when he was first seated at the piano, and his hands hovered over the keyboard for more than a few moments while he composed himself. The lyrical opening motif of the Op. 109 floated out of the piano, sensitively, thoughtfully delivered. This consoling, singing narrative was carried through to the variations of the final movement: it was therefore a pity that the second movement, a robust Prestissimo, came across a little too harshly, the fortes and fortissimos too strident, and some details lost in the melée of sound.

The serenity of the closing statements of Op. 109 was carried forward into Op. 110. There was no applause between the sonatas: Levit’s hands remained on the keyboard, indicating that there should be no interruption to the concentrated atmosphere, and the gentle opening sentence of Op. 110 glowed with a delicate cantabile. The tempo was pleasing, the music moving forward but without hurry. The Scherzo was boisterous and playful, while the final movement was controlled and meditative, its Baroque architecture evident in the recitative of the Arioso and the solid structures of the fugue which emerged from it, as if from silence, a little hesitant at first but always growing in strength. The return of the Arioso was desolate, a whispered message from another place, before the restatement of the fugue, now with greater grandeur, leading to a joyful finale.

The final sonata of the triptych, the Op. 111, has just two movements, which contrast dramatically in tempo and mood from a passionate Allegro to Adagio semplice. Poised over the piano, his nose almost grazing the keys, Levit gave the opening measures of the Op. 111 the “angry young man” treatment, jagged and forceful, the drama tracing a fine line between authoritative and parody. But in the second movement theme and variations, we returned to the beauty and delicacy of the Op. 109, and in some of the later variations it seemed as if the music was being created anew, and heard for the very first time. It was an intimate and intense reading with moments of true magic.

This was an ambitious and strenuous programme for a young performer, and there were times when the Herculean effort of all those notes threatened to overwhelm Levit. It is going to be very interesting to see how this young artist matures and develops.

***11