Undertaking a complete recording of the 32 published Piano Sonatas of Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827) remains one of the monumental challenges for any concert pianist, and with the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth next year it’s likely that the many accounts on disc will come under greater comparative scrutiny than ever.
Enter Igor Levit, who has previously impressed critics and audiences around the world both in recital and on disc. A Sony Classics artist, Levit is flying the flag for one of the world’s largest labels with his new 9CD set of the Sonata cycle, released this month.
These are interpretations which inevitably face comparison with the legendary recordings by such luminaries as Artur Schnabel, Wilhelm Kempff and Friedrich Gulda, beloved cycles by Stephen Kovacevich, Alfred Brendel and Claudio Arrau, and the more recent accounts by Paul Lewis, András Schiff, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and (revelatory on fortepiano) Ronald Brautigam.
With such high stakes, let’s find out how Levit’s cycle fares …
Igor Levit’s Beethoven Odyssey
Born in Nizhni Nowgorod in 1987, Igor Levit was already playing the piano at the age of four. He moved to Hanover with his family at age eight in response to an invitation for Soviet Jews to move from Russia to Germany, and there he became a top student at the University for Music, Drama and Media.
Named as a BBC New Generation Artist in 2011, Levit went on to make his major label debut in 2013 with an ambitious Sony Classics release featuring the last five Beethoven Sonatas, opp. 101, 106, 109, 110 and 111. Greeted with universal acclaim, the album established Levit overnight as one of the leading Beethoven interpreters of our time.
In an equally audacious follow-up, Levit delivered a 3CD set comprising Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, Bach’s Goldberg’s, and Rzewski’s The People United will never be Defeated!
The highlight here (for me at least) was once again Levit’s incisive Beethoven interpretation. And Beethoven has remained the central core of Levit’s repertoire in recital. It is thus perhaps inevitable that a complete survey of the 32 Sonatas has been eagerly anticipated.
For the Sony Classics boxed-set, Levit understandably retains his fabulous recordings of the late Sonatas, adding fresh recordings of the other 27 works committed to disc between 2017-2019.
Promoting the recording, Levit is quoted as saying:
“For me, this recording is a conclusion of my past fifteen years. The literally life-changing encounter with the Diabelli Variations at the age of 17, which is effectively still ongoing, the daily engagement with Beethoven’s sonatas, with Beethoven as a person, with myself, with the world in which I live – all that has also led to this recording.”
“What I started in 2013 with the last five sonatas, I can now conclude. It fills me with great happiness and at the same time feels like a new beginning. “
It is sometimes claimed (erroneously in my view) that playing the written-out music of a dead composer will never be so creative an act as playing ones own improvisation (however inane).
For a solid argument against so preposterous a charge we simply need look no further than the recorded legacy of the 32 Piano Sonatas of Beethoven, in which we soon discover a rich and varied treasure trove of individual insight and creative musical personality.
Across the range of these magnificent works, it’s surely fair to say that Beethoven neither leaves room to hide, nor fails to provide a canvas on which the great pianist can draw their own story. In Beethoven, the pianist’s task is not merely to reproduce the composer’s personality in music, but to take an active role in engaging with it, leaving their own mark.
So it is that there are so many treasured accounts of these works, each quite different in its qualities, none perhaps perfect because any survey of the Beethoven Sonatas is a personal odyssey, a series of “moments of truth”.
Just as so many others have made an indelible mark with their recordings of these pieces, so too it is clear from the hectic opening phrase of Op.2 No.1 that Levit is a man in charge of his own narrative. And it’s extraordinary!
Levit’s encounter with these works underlines those qualities we had surely already recognised in his playing: his mercurial temperament, the astonishing technical facility and seriousness of intent. Nor are we left in any doubt that he has a special next-level virtuosity that allows him to choose his tempi here without restraint.
Some will perhaps not like the excessive speeds of Levit’s outer movements in the early- and mid-period Sonatas, although his 2013 account of the Hammerklavier certainly foreshadows his approach, his glacially sombre reading of the third movement such a stark contrast to the audacity of the first.
Often Levit’s faster-than-expected tempi work supremely well. The popular Presto agitato finale of the “Moonlight” Sonata has rarely sounded so edgy, while the opening of the “Waldstein” unapologetically explodes with exuberance and crackles with manic zest.
Elsewhere perhaps the extreme tempi are less convincing; the start of the E major Sonata Op.14/1 for example sounds somewhat breathless, losing some of its insouciant charm. The dynamism and momentum occasionally comes at the expense of melodic and phrase shaping. And some might quibble that the opening Presto alla tadesca from the G major Sonate facile sounds anything but easy!
The lightening speed of the outer movements is often matched and contrasted by slower-than-slow middle movements, and here Levit is especially persuasive in conveying the lyricism, poetry and inner depth of Beethoven’s music.
The hushed opening of the F sharp major Op.78 gives the minimal Adagio cantabile its full weight within the overall structure, before giving way to an implausibly delightful Allegro ma non troppo in which Levit resists any urge to deviate from that instruction: ma non troppo.
Similarly the sublime theme and variations finale of the E major Sonata Op.109 has surely never sounded so reverent. This is pianistic poetry of the finest order.
Should any consider Levit’s tempi injudicious, it is wise to remember the precedent of Schnabel, and instructive to learn that Levit has a special regard for the latter’s classic 1930’s recordings. Interviewed recently for the BBC Music Magazine, he confided:
“Artur Schnabel. Incomparable. His approach is just magnificent, it’s free, rhapsodic, almost Busonian. He goes to extremes. He’s lightening fast, he’s incredibly slow. He’s very deep. It’s so radical and improvisational.”
And it’s with little hesitation that I would suggest Levit has himself achieved a similar marvel with these fresh interpretations.
It is equally essential to add that Levit succeeds admirably in conveying the sometimes hidden narrative of Beethoven’s own artistic evolution. These are performances which illuminate the Haydnesque classicism of the early sonatas, convey the force of the mid-period works where Beethoven forges a new path, and testify to the profound introspection and structural genius of the late works, composed when Beethoven was profoundly deaf.
Sony Classics have certainly produced artistically satisfying packaging for Levit’s Beethoven, the eye-catching box including the nine CD’s in vivid inner sleeves, and providing an informative booklet:
The recordings themselves were made in three separate venues, located in Hanover, Neumarkt and Berlin. Bearing in mind this means the set features three different pianos recorded in three different acoustics, the level of consistency on the final master is impressive.
This is not to say, however, that the recordings are indistinguishable; some of the sessions seem to have closer microphone placement than others. In all cases, the sound has reasonable clarity, is fairly bright and natural sounding. Levit’s extraordinary voicing of chords, for example, shines in these takes.
What place these recordings will take in the pantheon of Beethoven Sonata cycles remains to be seen, but I personally feel they represent an important addition and are a triumph.
I have a fondness for Paul Lewis’s harmonia mundi cycle, and of course for many of the great accounts of yesteryear. But for me, Levit adds fresh and interesting insights. even in such a crowded field, delivering a truly compelling alternative that I anticipate revisiting frequently.
I doubt any complete recording of these works will or could ever be regarded as the benchmark, still less the final word, and it’s a testament to the depth of Beethoven’s music that it continues to yield such varied and persuasive interpretations from our greatest concert artists.
With this set, Levit has succeeded in completing a Beethoven Sonata cycle which largely stays true to the composer’s intentions and likewise respects the interpretive legacy (especially Schnabel) while still being imbued with the performer’s own musical personality. What more can we ask?
If you don’t already have a Beethoven Sonata recorded set in your home, there are certainly many to consider. If you are an aficionado looking for another take on these multifaceted masterpieces, you must definitely check out Igor Levit’s recording.
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