Igor Levit’s Stunning Late-Beethoven Debut

Review by: Jed Distler

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Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

All of the positive attention and high praise that 26-year-old pianist Igor Levit has garnered in Europe is thoroughly justified by his Sony Classical debut release encompassing Beethoven’s last five sonatas. Levit’s affinity for the composer’s essentially linear style and intense expressivity borders on clairvoyance, if you’ll forgive the cliché. You notice this immediately in Op. 101’s first and third movements, where thoughtful voice leading and flexible lyricism mesh into a single entity. Impressive pianistic poise and thoughtful dynamic scaling give clarity and meaning to the Scherzo’s obsessive march rhythms and difficult register leaps as well as to the Fugue’s knotty textures.

Levit takes the “Hammerklavier” first-movement Allegro at a tempo close to the composer’s admittedly optimistic metronome marking, yet the music ebbs and flows with characterful assurance. The Scherzo also takes bracing wing; it features biting cross-rhythmic accents and a ferocious ascending F major scale from bottom to top. You might describe Levit’s masterful Adagio sostenuto as a fusion of Rudolf Serkin’s classical reserve and Claudio Arrau’s depth of tone and vocally oriented inflection. In the finale’s introductory Largo, Levit piles into the jazzy broken-chord accelerando with shattering abandon, and brings plenty of drama, dynamic contrast, and varied articulations to the fugue.

Following Op. 109’s eloquently shaped Vivace, Levit’s well sprung and sharply detailed second movement is one of the few on disc to make Beethoven’s detached and legato phrasings audible to the point where the music sounds faster than it actually is performed. Levit’s heartfelt, beautifully sung out, and assiduously unified third-movement variations easily measure up to the catalog’s finest versions. Op. 110 also stands out for Levit’s brilliant synthesis of personal poetry and scrupulous detail, while Op. 111 matches Mauruzio Pollini’s extraordinary exactitude (the first movement’s driving 16th-note sequences impeccably in place, the Arietta’s dotted rhythms’ spot-on accuracy and inner “swing”) with an extra hint of cantabile warmth. In short, this is Beethoven playing of the highest distinction, not to be missed.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: The last five sonatas: This one, Arrau 1960s (Philips), Goode (Nonesuch), Goodyear (Marquis)

  • BEETHOVEN, LUDWIG VAN:
    Piano Sonatas No. 28 in A major Op. 101, No. 29 in B-flat major Op. 106 (“Hammerklavier”), No. 30 in E major Op. 109, No. 31 in A-flat major Op. 110, & No. 32 in C minor Op. 111

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