Tuesday 2 April 2013

Igor Levit - Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, and Prokofiev, 2 April 2013

Wigmore Hall

Bach – Capriccio sopra la lontananza del suo fratello dilettissimo, BWV 992
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.30 in E major, op.109
Schubert – Allegretto in C minor, D 915
Schubert-Liszt – Du bist die Ruh, S 558/3
Aufenthalt, S 560/3
Auf dem Wasser zu singen, S 558/2
Der Wanderer, S 558/11
Prokofiev – Piano Sonata no.7 in B-flat major, op.83

This was the first time I had heard Igor Levit, already a BBC New Generation Artist and recipient of an exclusive recording contract with Sony Classical; I certainly hope that it will not be the last, The recital opened arrestingly with Bach’s B-flat major Capriccio, ‘On the departure of his most beloved brother,’ Levit’s opening bars voiced with Couperin-like delicacy (perhaps even Couperin-Strauss), and not only in terms of the ornamentation. Beautifully clear, the performance lacked nothing in tonal warmth. A fine balance was struck between necessary ‘improvisational’ quality and an equally necessary sense of the music, being Bach’s, being most definitely ‘composed. Bach’s chromaticism was equally expressive, but the overriding impression was of something more ‘courtly’, more ‘French’ in character than one expects from the composer. (It is, after all, an early work.) And yet, if the trumpet-theme of the fugue is unusually Handelian in character, the working out is – and in performance, was – undeniably that of the great Johann Sebastian. Perhaps most surprising of all was the way Levit managed to hold off applause, so as to continue into the Beethoven with but a short pause.

With the first movement of Beethoven’s E major sonata, op.109, we unmistakeably moved from music that works supremely well upon the piano to music that was definitively written for it. In this performance, we heard Beethoven as the gateway to later nineteenth-century composition, Chopin as well as Liszt. This was Beethoven for the bright-toned Steinway, not the mellow, more Viennese Bösendorfer. It was certainly not jejune, but it was a young man’s late Beethoven, quite rightly, rather than an attempt to feign the wisdom of a lengthy career. Voicing of chords was often especially beautiful. The second movement was characterised by a heightened, almost kaleidoscopic, sense of drama; again, it was intriguing to hear late Beethoven voiced with youthful radicalism. The finale came off a little less well. It certainly sounded beautifully, but without the noble simplicity the greatest Beethoven interpreters can summon. Much was exquisite, in almost Chopin-like fashion, not least on account of Levit’s well-nigh ‘Golden Age’ touch. There was great variety: more pointillistic passages vied with a positively rambunctious account of the fugal fifth variation. Ultimately, however, the movement emerged more as a compendious than an integrated or integrative set of variations. There seems, however, every reason to suspect that the latter will come before long.

Schubert’s C minor Allegretto concluded the first half. It benefited from an unexaggeratedly Romantic yearning, perhaps more apposite here than in the Beethoven finale. Ruptures were relished every bit as impressively as line was spun. Levit certainly had an impressive command of major-mode balm, however fleeting – and the brevity of that balm was of course a good part of the point.

An exquisite – sorry to use that word again, but it does seem fitting – group of Schubert-Liszt songs followed the interval. Du bist die Ruh exhibited left-hand strength and subtlety, as well as an excellent feeling for rubato. Climaxes were undeniably Liszt’s rather than Schubert’s. Aufenthalt became a true song without words; indeed, its narrative quality hinted at the ballad. Auf dem Wasser zu singen opened with a fine sense of coming de profundis, Levit’s touch soon revealed to be every bit as melting as in the preceding songs. ‘Atmosphere’ and clarity were well balanced, and virtuosity made its point without excess. The same could be said of Der Wanderer, which maintained an impeccable sense of line and direction.

Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata received a performance for which ‘outstanding’ would not be an exaggeration. Its first movement opened with an excellent sense of the diabolical and of whimsy. The roots of Prokofiev’s wartime writing thereby extended deep, recalling not only the composer of The Love for Three Oranges but even the experimental creator of the Visions fugitives. (Why do we not hear them more often?) Harmony was certainly made to tell in forging such links, whether conscious or otherwise; the claptrap ideology of socialist realism was banished for good. It was a broad Romantic, or perhaps better neo-Romantic, canvas upon which Levit painted, not dissimilar from that of the Beethoven, but certainly more fitting. That is not, however, to say that his playing could not be rhythmically taut when necessary. The side-slipping, balletic neo-Romanticism of the slow movement was captured to a tee. Something utterly personal, both for composer and pianist, was forged from what can be daunting eclecticism. Prokofiev as heir to the virtuoso Liszt was apparent too, not least in the superlative visualisation of the composer’s half-lights. If not exactly more yielding than the awe-inspiringly implacable Maurizio Pollini in his classic recording, Levit, as in the first movement, offered a greater sense of whimsy in the finale. There is room for both approaches; that one might even be moved to speak of a pianist in the same breath as Pollini speaks volumes of the distinction of this reading. Make no mistake: this was tremendous pianism – and musicianship too. Levit offered edge-of-the-seat excitement in the very best, Precipitato, sense.

As an encore, we were treated to Liszt’s transcription of the ‘Liebestod’ – yes, it is his fault we call it that, rather than Wagner’s ‘Verklärung’ – from Tristan und Isolde. The combination of magical showmanship and an utter lack of the meretricious once again showed Levit to be an uncommonly distinguished Lisztian. This performance impressed – and it moved. The kinship with Liszt’s older operatic fantasias was clear – for once Hans von Bülow’s quip concerning Wagner’s ‘bel canto opera’ did not seem entirely absurd – but the incommensurate development in terms of material was equally apparent. An excellent conclusion, then, to an excellent recital.