Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas review | Andrew Clements's classical album of the week

Igor Levit
(Sony Classical, nine CDs)
Levit scales the heights over nine CDs, though excessive speed means musical sense is lost in some sonatas

Igor Levit made his debut on disc in 2013 with Beethoven sonatas, and not just any group of sonatas, but the final five, Opp 101, 106, 109, 110 and 111, which rank among the greatest works ever composed for the instrument. A startlingly self-confident way in which to launch a recording career, Levit followed it up, two years later, with the release of his account of Beethoven’s monumental Diabelli Variations, as part of a set that also included Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Frederic Rzewski’s Variations on The People United Will Never Be Defeated! Levit has only now completed his cycle of the sonatas, with the original 2013 performances re-released alongside recordings of the other 27 made between the end of 2017 and the beginning of this year.

Though three different recording locations – Hanover, Neumarkt and Berlin – were used across the cycle, the piano sound is wonderfully consistent throughout the nine discs and conveys every gradation of Levit’s pearly sound world. His original set of the last five sonatas was remarkable, almost mature beyond his years (he was just 26 when he recorded it), so that in one sense it’s not at all surprising that he has now chosen to retain those performances as part of the complete set. But there does seem to be a distinct difference of approach between the earlier deeply considered, thoughtful accounts and some of what one hears in his treatment of the earlier sonatas, where tempi seem more extreme, and the music is given less space to breathe.

Some movements, especially of the middle-period sonatas, are taken so fast that they become almost meaningless. The final Allegro vivace of the little F sharp major sonata Op 78, for instance, is turned into a grotesque caricature, instead of the witty throwaway that Levit surely intended it to be, while however beautifully he floats the opening theme of the last movement of the Waldstein Sonata Op 53, it seems only a preparation for a hell-for-leather attack on the coda, much as the finale of Les Adieux, Op 81a is taken just too fast to really make its point. The clarity of the playing at such speeds is often dazzling; it’s the musical sense that is lost.

The best of Levit’s performances, then, are certainly outstanding – returning to the five late sonatas, particularly, some years after last listening to them, they do stand up very well indeed – but just a bit too much of the rest seems to try far too hard to create an effect, or to search for a new approach. As a whole for consistency it does not match what’s perhaps the finest of recent versions, András Schiff’s live performances for ECM, or any of the established classic sets – Claudio Arrau’s (now on Decca), Daniel Barenboim’s first cycle from the 1960s (Warner) or Emil Gilels’ frustratingly incomplete one for Deutsche Grammophon.

Contributor

Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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