Levit’s Beethoven: At Blazing Speed, Blistered Sonatas

Pianist Igor Levit, at 32, has wrapped his complete cycle of the 32 Beethoven sonatas on the Sony label. (Robbie Lawrence)

Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas. Igor Levit, piano. Sony Classical  9 CDs. Total Time: 606:49.

DIGITAL REVIEW – At the age of only 26, Russian pianist Igor Levit garnered remarkably high praise for his debut album. It was devoted to Beethoven’s last five piano sonatas and was released by Sony Classical in 2013. Six years later he set down the remaining 27. Sony has released the cycle as a nine-CD boxed set (886447741030). The playing is astonishing for its technical proficiency but time and again seems lacking in flexibility and drama.

In my youth I was fortunate enough to hear live performances by pianists of the stature of Wilhelm Kempff, Arthur Rubinstein, Rudolf Serkin, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Maurizio Pollini, Alfred Brendel, and many others. In one memorable week in Montreal I heard Kempff play a cycle of Beethoven’s five piano concertos. Equally inspirational was a cycle of sonatas by Anton Kuerti, a Serkin student and a formidable Beethoven interpreter in his own right. And then there are the recordings. I never heard Artur Schnabel live – he died in 1951 – but I certainly heard his Beethoven recordings from the 1930s and, like almost everyone else, greatly admired them.

Inevitably, my reaction to performances by current luminaries is colored by what I remember of pianists from an earlier generation. And sometimes our memories play tricks on us. Many of us have probably had the experience of carrying a memory of a “legendary” performance with us for years, until a recording turns up of that very performance and is nothing like what we thought we remembered. A little humility is required in making comparisons with performances heard long ago. In the case of Kempff, for example, I remember well how impressed I was by a live performance of the Pathétique. I was struck by how improvisatory it felt, and how wonderful it was to hear him play the repeat of the first movement quite differently. But on other occasions, whether he’d had a bad meal before the concert or was just plain tired, his playing was routine at best.

No doubt about it, Igor Levit is a phenomenal pianist. Few others in my experience have had the technique to tear through the fugal finale of the Hammerklavier at such speed and with such precision. On the other hand, listening to Schnabel or Brendel struggle valiantly through the same music can be a more profound experience. Generally speaking, Levit favors fast tempos in Beethoven, not only in the quick movements but also in many of the slow movements. Levit’s tempo for the beginning of the first movement of the Hammerklavier, while clearly based on Beethoven’s own questionable metronome marking, surely robs the music of its inherent majesty. Grigory Sokolov (DG 479 5426) goes to the other tempo extreme and gives us perhaps an overrefined reading of this monumental work. Brendel finds the middle ground (Philips 456730-2) in a classic performance from 1995.

The last movement of the Appassionata is another case in point. It is marked Allegro ma non troppo, but Levit ignores this instruction. To be sure, the fast tempo is exciting, and Levit can still step it up a notch for the Presto coda. But my overall impression was of a pianist more interested in showing off his dexterity than in serving the music. At times I began to wonder if I was listening to Beethoven-Liszt.

My current benchmark for the Appassionata is a live performance from 2016 (DG 479 7581) by Evgeny Kissin. Kissin is every bit as fine a technician as Levit, but he plays this music with stunning insight into the structure and drama of the piece. This is musical storytelling on the highest level. Kissin gives us the ebb and flow of the music, builds climaxes unerringly, and keeps us on the edge of our seats from beginning to end. By comparison Levit is stiff and academic.

This is also the case with Levit’s “Waldstein.” It is dry and unyielding. Nor does he trust Beethoven’s pedaling instructions. Compare Kuerti (Concertmasters AKR2017CD-1) and what this pianist calls the “surrealistic” pedal effects in this sonata.

While Levit’s consistently fast tempos in the Beethoven sonatas are a problem for me, I don’t mean to underestimate the quality of his playing. Throughout the nine CDs there are episodes of exquisite loveliness. Levit’s soft playing in the Largo introduction to the last movement of the Hammerklavier is a good example. I can’t recall hearing these widely spaced piano chords played with such a delicate touch, and Levit and his engineers have together produced an ideal sound quality.

Pianist Igor Levit’s hands.  (Peter Meisel)

With respect to complete performances, my choice would be Levit’s Op. 111. Here he shows a flexibility not always evident elsewhere in the set. He seems more willing to take his time and to let this supremely idiosyncratic music unfold on its own terms. Levit’s technique is as impeccable as ever, but there is never a hint of showing off. We marvel at such carefully controlled playing but admire even more how clearly Beethoven’s vision comes through. And once again, the piano sound is ideal.

In the late sonatas Beethoven exploited the range of the instrument to its very limits, and one suspects that the pianos available to him could only partially give him what he had in mind. Levit and his producer Stephan Schellmann face no such obstacle. No specific instruments are credited in the album booklet, but virtually every note from top to bottom is clear and beautiful.

Once again it should be noted that Levit recorded the late sonatas in 2013 and added the others later. Does this mean that his approach to Beethoven has become more rigid over time? Perhaps so. But he is still only 32 with what will undoubtedly be a distinguished career ahead of him. Plenty of time to revisit these great works. And for a pianist whose musical role model is Thelonious Monk, almost anything is possible.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for La Scena Musicale and www.myscena.org.