Igor Levit review – Beethoven programme affirms deep affinity

Wigmore Hall, London
The pianist’s dynamic, live-streamed performance had all the immediacy of his twitter house concerts that became a lockdown phenomenon

Igor Levit’s pianism emerges as a force of nature, hence perhaps in part his deep and seemingly fundamental affinity with Beethoven. As Levit returned to the Wigmore Hall for this recital in their autumn season, a sequence of four Beethoven sonatas was the logical choice for his programme, and everything about the playing affirmed the symbiotic relationship.

Levit is no stranger to the Wigmore, but this appearance was also acknowledgement of his role in establishing live-streaming as the new norm: from March, his nightly house concerts streamed on Twitter – more than 50 all told – from his home in Berlin became a lockdown phenomenon and brought him a cult following. He seemed to bring some of the immediacy and the dynamic of that experience to this performance.

Opening with the F minor sonata, Op 2, No 1, the tight focus of Levit’s delivery and his highly accented rhythms characterised the dramatic cut and thrust of the outer movements, in stark contrast to the cantabile line of the Adagio they framed. In the A flat major sonata, Op 26, the central funeral march, whose dedication – like the Eroica symphony – is to the memory of a hero, carried a particular nobility, while the Allegro finale simply flew. The G major sonata, Op 79, might have spelled light relief, but periodic injections of sharp tension meant there was no real let-up.

Levit opened his Berlin house concerts with Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata, Op 53, repeating it when invited mid-series to perform in Germany’s presidential palace. Once again at the Wigmore, it was clear how closely he identifies with this piece. The opening Allegro was attacked with a breathless urgency, the slow introduction had a controlled poise. It was in the finale – a movement that at Schloss Bellvue he described as a “hymn of life” – that Levit was in most commanding form. Initially he created a mood of serenity, the sustaining pedal veiling the tone of the long phrases, but momentum gathered apace, culminating in a prestissimo adrenaline rush.

Levit’s instinct for balancing acute technical discipline with an air of spontaneity is appealing, the sense of interpretation being determined in the moment. As the process is evidently infused with joy, sometimes he cannot suppress a smile and you smile with him. But that’s not to say there aren’t other times when his fast tempi are so fast as to be infuriating. Execution is crystalline, yet defining detail gets lost in the flow and it verges on the wayward. This is a balance that feels to be wanting.

As though to counter the speeding, Levit’s encore was a gentle meditation. Trees, written for him by the American jazz pianist and composer Fred Hersch, was conceived while Hersch watched the movement of trees through a window. Healing was Levit’s word for it. In the context of the pandemic, the symbolism of the oxygen-giving, inspiration-lending trees was quietly potent and the playing no less heartfelt than the Beethoven.

• Available on demand via Wigmore Hall or its YouTube channel.


Rian Evans

The GuardianTramp

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