Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas, Opus 109, 110, and 111, are offered worldwide every year through myriad concert venues. Indeed, the huge anticipation of Igor Levit’s interpretation of these iconic works made it hard to come by tickets for this Celebrity Series Concert, and for the capacity audience, given the nasty Seussian Oobleck outside, to arrive. Yet, Jordan Hall filled with music lovers, including many pianists, professional and amateur, the majority having themselves attempted, actually played, and perhaps performed these three interrelated, truly unparalleled works that their composer, with his towering genius, contributed to humankind.
Fast and facile, and, as is done on occasion, nearly without pause, Levit’s “last three” transported those holding on for the ride, a carefully crafted, deft presentation of Beethoven’s deep and musically seismic sonatas, which irrevocably changed the musical world, heralding the Romantic era and, some think, created the possibility for works by Schubert, Liszt, Brahms and many more. Levit, a Millennial who will have achieved 36 years on March 10th, revealed an astounding dynamic range and equally developed facility, though more depth and reflection, at least in honoring Beethoven’s specific tempo and dynamic markings, would also have been welcome.
Levit’s Opus 109 sounded fast and explosive in places, but his sure fingers emphasized the contrasts inherent in the first movement’s alternation between Vivace ma non troppo and Adagio. His e minor Prestissimo gave vent to what a truly modern Steinway can provide as an opening fortissimo and galloped onward quickly to the third movement’s theme and variations, which, for me, reached the pinnacle of his playing of number 30, particularly in the second variation, labeled leggieramente.
Then without more than an inhalation and a hand flourish, Levit dove into the A-flat Major Opus 110, catching the listeners off guard, though many know that some pianists put these two sonatas together, and very occasionally, all three, without pause. Opus 110, generally considered highly “accessible,” and often considered the most “popular” of these last three sonatas, begins with not one but two clear tunes, of which just the first is subsequently richly embellished. Here, both flashed by more quickly than I’d have wished—perhaps reflecting my vintage as compared to the pianist’s. The lyrical first movement might have benefited from incorporation of the composer’s tempo variations, but that is a matter of taste. The Allegro molto second movement , scherzo-like wafted brilliantly. The Adagio ma non troppo served as an expected—and heartfelt bridge—to the Fuga. Indeed, the Opus 110 seemed to suit Levit best of the three works.
The artist rose and bowed before the C Minor Opus 111, one of the most inventive compositions ever written for piano, considering the era and what this (and these other late sonatas) did to usher in the Romantic Period. The Maestoso beginning of the first movement, startling, complex, and emotional, in a dark, nearly strident c minor, ultimately emerges passionately. The final movement in C major conveys resolution, if not resignation, perhaps signifying tranquility and peace. Levit almost became the piano in the first movement, appearing as a possessed extension. The final Arietta with its cantabile, yet ever faster variations, truly transported.
In thinking about these ultimate piano sonatas, some of us, no doubt, have favorite artists and clear opinions about how each sonata, perhaps each phrase, should be executed. Many of us have listened to the scores of recording artists, starting with Artur Schnabel, who was the first to record all 32, and going through recent pressings, especially Levit’s. And some of us have heard Levit deliver these last three sonatas online or, even better, in a hall. And perhaps a few also heard Mitsuko Uchida play them just days ago in New York City.
To be sure, Levit is a charismatic and prodigious musician, whom many of us came to know, love, and admire through his more than 50 generously streamed home performances during the pandemic. His thoughtful activism in several arenas engenders a variety of thanks and admiration from most, including this reviewer. Seeing him and hearing him live was energizing, usefully controversial, and much appreciated.