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.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas – review
There are moments to admire in Buchbinder's survey of Beethoven's piano works, but ultimately his performances are too uneven to recommend, writes Andrew Clements

Andrew Clements

13, Feb, 2013 @3:30 PM

Article image
Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Op 31 Nos 1, 2 & 3; Variations Op 34 & 35 | classical album of the week
Andreas Staier
(Harmonia Mundi, two CDs)
The three op 31 sonatas, all written in 1802, sound lean and coherent on an 1810 piano, if occasionally things feel a little too well-mannered

Andrew Clements

05, Mar, 2020 @3:00 PM

Article image
Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Op 101 & Op 106, ‘Hammerklavier’ review – the power of Pollini | Andrew Clements's classical album of the week
The pianist’s severe, analytical style engages with two of the most challenging works in the repertoire to produce a disc of compelling, muscular authority

Andrew Clements

08, Dec, 2022 @3:30 PM

Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas – review
Lim has an outstanding technique but there's no sense of any real musical intelligence behind these performances, writes Andrew Clements

Andrew Clements

31, May, 2012 @9:23 PM

Article image
Bezuidenhout: Beethoven Piano Concertos 2 and 5 review | Erica Jeal's classical album of the week
Bezuidenhout/Heras-Casado/Freiburger Barockorchester
(Harmonia Mundi)
Kristian Bezuidenhout and Pablo Heras-Casado make these concertos sing in readings that feel both freewheeling and profound

Erica Jeal

20, Feb, 2020 @3:00 PM

Beethoven; Piano Concertos; Piano Sonatas – review
Serkin's recordings of Beethoven showcase his honesty and refusal to do anything for effect – at times with uncomfortable results

Andrew Clements

06, Dec, 2012 @9:45 PM

Article image
Igor Levit review – bold Beethoven piano cycle comes to an outstanding end
Levit brought drama but never at the expense of thoughtfulness to Beethoven’s final three sonatas

Martin Kettle

14, Jun, 2017 @2:44 PM

Article image
A Bag of Bagatelles: Piano Works by Birtwistle and Beethoven review | Andrew Clements's classical album of the week
Hodges’s cool virtuosity emphasises the links between two composers of muscular intricacy and resonance

Andrew Clements

12, Nov, 2020 @3:00 PM

Beethoven: Complete Violin Sonatas – review

There's great energy and relish in the way both musicians approach these works, writes Andrew Clements

Andrew Clements

19, Jul, 2012 @8:42 PM

Article image
Beethoven: The Piano Trios review | Andrew Clements's classical album of the week
Fifty years after his classic recordings with Jacqueline du Pre, Barenboim joins with his violinist son and cellist Kian Soltani to bring nuance and thoughtfulness to these seven piano trios

Andrew Clements

10, Dec, 2020 @3:00 PM