Beethoven: The Late Piano Sonatas / Igor Levit

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All of the positive attention and high praise that 26-year-old pianist Igor Levit has garnered in Europe is thoroughly justified by his Sony Classical debut release encompassing Beethoven’s last five sonatas. Levit’s affinity for the composer’s essentially linear style and intense expressivity borders on clairvoyance, if you’ll forgive the cliché. You notice this immediately in Op. 101’s first and third movements, where thoughtful voice leading and flexible lyricism mesh into a single entity. Impressive pianistic poise and thoughtful dynamic scaling give clarity and meaning to the Scherzo’s obsessive march rhythms and difficult register leaps as well as to the Fugue’s knotty textures.

Levit takes the “Hammerklavier” first-movement Allegro at a tempo close to the composer’s admittedly optimistic metronome marking, yet the music ebbs and flows with characterful assurance. The Scherzo also takes bracing wing; it features biting cross-rhythmic accents and a ferocious ascending F major scale from bottom to top. You might describe Levit’s masterful Adagio sostenuto as a fusion of Rudolf Serkin’s classical reserve and Claudio Arrau’s depth of tone and vocally oriented inflection. In the finale’s introductory Largo, Levit piles into the jazzy broken-chord accelerando with shattering abandon, and brings plenty of drama, dynamic contrast, and varied articulations to the fugue.

Following Op. 109’s eloquently shaped Vivace, Levit’s well sprung and sharply detailed second movement is one of the few on disc to make Beethoven’s detached and legato phrasings audible to the point where the music sounds faster than it actually is performed. Levit’s heartfelt, beautifully sung out, and assiduously unified third-movement variations easily measure up to the catalog’s finest versions. Op. 110 also stands out for Levit’s brilliant synthesis of personal poetry and scrupulous detail, while Op. 111 matches Mauruzio Pollini’s extraordinary exactitude (the first movement’s driving 16th-note sequences impeccably in place, the Arietta’s dotted rhythms’ spot-on accuracy and inner “swing”) with an extra hint of cantabile warmth. In short, this is Beethoven playing of the highest distinction, not to be missed.

-- Jed Distler,


This is a notable debut recording. Thanks to Igor Levit’s remarkably even touch and precise rhythmic control, the scores’ details, minutely realized, are fashioned into lucid, structurally sound interpretations. This isn’t a pianist trying to outdo others with speed, volume, or extreme interpretations, but a musician whose tasteful instincts produce Beethoven performances with purity of expression and a certain reserve.

Most striking is the gentle songfulness that Levit brings to lyrical movements, such as the brief Allegretto —an endless melody in four-part texture, singled out by more than a few people, Glenn Gould included, as their favorite movement in all of Beethoven’s sonatas—that opens the 28th Sonata, op. 101. In it, Levit succeeds at creating natural phrase divisions without breaking long lines, something that sounds easy when it’s done this well. (Anyone who has tried to play it knows how extremely difficult this is, and how disjointed the movement can sound.) The Sonata’s technically punishing second movement’s dotted rhythms and rests are perfectly executed at an unrushed tempo, and in the final movement, Levit’s comic timing and articulation rivals the very best versions of the Sonata, such as Richard Goode’s.

A generation ago, one often made allowances in performances of the “Hammerklavier,” except perhaps for Pollini, for broader than ideal tempos in the first movement to accommodate technical difficulties, or moments of stressful scrambling to get through the fugue. Judging by some recent recordings of the work—by the excellent Van Cliburn Competition medalist Sean Chen, Mari Kodama (see Jerry Dubins’s review in Fanfare 37:3), and now Igor Levit—there are clear signs that pianists’ technique in the 21st century has caught up with the Sonata’s demands. Levit’s Apollonian reading is more fluent and less heaven-storming than most. This is a young man’s “Hammerklavier,” and I wouldn’t be surprised if he were to infuse the first and third movements with more drama, through the taking of time, later in his life. He plays the first movement at 132 to the quarter in a tempo that sounds just right—Beethoven’s metronome marking, once considered impossible to realize, is 138— achieving a kind of ecstatic swing whose confident steadiness and occasional lightness doesn’t diminish the music’s profundity. The slow movement, taken exactly at Beethoven’s metronome marking of 92, is gentler than many performances, less grandly soul-searching, but serious and intimate.

In the last three sonatas, I find Levit even better than Paul Lewis, whose well-considered performances sound merely like good piano playing compared to the poised, unearthly effect—I’m thinking here of the final movements of Nos. 30 and 32, in particular—that Levit achieves with his finer technical control. The highlights here are, once again, the lyrical movements, though op. 109’s Presstissimo second movement goes like quicksilver, and op. 110’s Allegro molto is a suitably brusque interruption of the work’s otherwise exalted proceedings. In the final pages of op. 110—the triumphant return of a fugue that has been interrupted and turned around by a grief-stricken lament—I find Levit’s tempo too fast, its fluency too easily achieved. I prefer Mitsuko Uchida’s more measured realization of these tricky tempo relationships.

In the Maestoso introduction to the 32nd Sonata, op. 111, Levit’s strict dotted rhythms reveal the music’s kinship to a French overture and provide continuity, unlike Andrew Rangell’s, whose freer concept of the rhythm bogs the music down. Unlike Barenboim in his 1980s DG recording, Levit doesn’t make the slow Arietta a static dirge. His pacing allows the second movement’s sublime variations to unfold with great logic and inevitability. His interpretation of op. 111 is close to Richter’s (a 1975 performance) in its straightforward pacing, but Levit’s voicing doesn’t have Richter’s laser-like exaggeration of top lines. His right hand comes out as needed in all of these performances, but with an appealingly unforced sonority.

The Richter comparison came to mind as I watched Igor Levit on YouTube, not because the two pianists’ playing is particularly similar, but because of their shared Russian-German background, and Levit’s eclectic, rather austere repertoire choices. Both pianists’ quiet concentration conveys the sense that whatever they’re playing is of life-and-death importance, though the grim, aggressive aura that Richter sometimes projected isn’t part of Levit’s image. Levit’s videos of music by Hindemith, Reger, Beethoven (the Third Concerto), and the Bach-Brahms Chaconne arranged for left hand, show that the intensity and refinement of his Beethoven sonatas is no fluke.

Thanks are due to Sony for taking on a serious young pianist in repertoire of his choice, and providing him with sensitive engineering that showcases his full range of dynamics. There’s every indication that this recording introduces one of the 21st century’s important pianists.

FANFARE: Paul Orgel

Product Description:

  • Release Date: November 05, 2013

  • Catalog Number: 88883703872

  • UPC: 888837038720

  • Label: Sony

  • Number of Discs: 2

  • Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven

  • Performer: Igor Levit