Igor Levit’s series as the Barbican’s featured artist started with a solo recital – devoted to Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues Op 87 – but the remaining two concerts were built around works for two pianists.
In the first, in Milton Court, Levit had been partnered by Markus Hinterhäuser in a thrilling account of Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen, while in the second, with Markus Becker, he played Beethoven, Brahms and Bartók in the Barbican Hall.
Beethoven wrote few original works for four hands, and nearly all of those early in his career. But in 1826, shortly after the premiere of his B flat string quartet Op 130, he did make an arrangement for piano duet of the Grosse Fuge, the quartet’s original finale, which became his Op 134. It’s rarely heard in concerts, but while this performance could hardly be faulted technically, it never made it more than a curio. The reworking seems to drain one of the most taxing pieces in the quartet repertoire of most of its seat-of-the-pants tension, and though it might have conveyed more of its fundamental astringency on a piano of Beethoven’s day, on a modern Steinway it all seemed too comfortably upholstered.
Compared with the immediacy of the Milton Court Messiaen, the sound seemed unfocused. Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn, one of the best known of all two-piano works, never really took off as it should have done, and even Bartók’s Sonata for two piano and percussion, in which Levit and Becker were joined by Klaus Reda and Andreas Boettger, lacked real impact. One of Bartók’s greatest achievements, and a classic of modernism, strangely seemed to have been neutralised.